Travelling that divergent path…

Yesterday I met some poet friends who started their PhD at the same time as me: we were on the same induction programme two years ago. It was good to see them, because PhD can be a lonely journey: you plough your own furrow and the more you plough, the bigger the field seems to get. You work away on your own research, and it takes you where it will: there are productive routes and there are interesting but diverting side paths. And then, suddenly and surprisingly, you reach a place where ‘two roads diverge’, as Robert Frost said, and you decide to take ‘the road less travelled’, because that is the requirement of PhD: an ‘original contribution to knowledge’. That sounds such a daunting phrase at the outset: if it is an original contribution, how will you discover it among all the existing knowledge you’re researching. But the phrase needs bringing down to size: you aren’t looking for a new knowledge system, just a new slant on an already huge body of human experience. For me, the lightbulb moment came in reading Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in the summer. That’s when I found my ‘road less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.’ It was reassuring to hear that the experience of friends mirrors my own: we are all searching for our own way out of those woods.

This week I had a meeting with my support team for the critical aspect, so I concentrated on the creative aspect of the PhD at the start of the week. This is my favourite kind of work; it constitutes about 75% of the thesis and yet it gets the smaller share of my time while I knock the 25% that is the critical aspect into submission. So it was good to spend time on just writing poetry. I prepared plans for three short sequences of poems; one is a single event viewed from multiple perspectives. My intention for that one is to give a voice to everyone involved in the event, even the dog. I also prepared a plan for a series of poems about women who might have been my mother: thank you to Kim Moore for that idea; and one directly related to mirror theory, about all the mirrors held up to me as a child to provide opportunities for me to become ‘me’; or, conversely, to allow me to develop the masks that became the multiple faces of me that enabled me to negotiate my place in the world. I even wrote a couple of poems for the first sequence, one of them fulfilling the ‘syllabics’ framework I talked about with Jean. Unfortunately, it’s another nonet, about which more later. I must get beyond this little nine-line wonder, but I do find nonets very satisfying to write.

On Tuesday I went to MMU to meet Antony and Angelica, my support team for the critical aspect, to discuss my ideas for a ‘masks and mirrors’ focus on the work. I had sent them a piece to whet their appetites a couple of weeks ago, explaining that it was just to show them where my thoughts were leading, that there was an authoritative theoretical base for said focus. None-the-less, they were concerned that I was getting bogged down in the theory, and that, with only 20,000 words to play with I needed to get straight in with the analysis of the poetry and bring the theory into that rather than dedicate space to the theory on its own. I’m happy with that. They also asked, was I changing direction from the ‘mother-daughter’ theme into something completely different at this late stage: that wouldn’t be acceptable. Good God, no! Absolutely not; I’m planning to examine the mother-daughter theme through a focus on masks and mirrors. They were happy with that and thought the focus could be a good idea, a good way to bring a huge body of work down to manageable size. Yes, that’s what I’d hoped for. I’d also sent them the review I wrote for The North as a taster of where I was going with the Petit analysis. Interestingly, one of the parts they liked most about it was the inter-textual bit about Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’: Antony thought I could have developed that idea in much more depth. This was one of the ‘academic’ bits I toned down in the review, on the request of the editors! Different strokes for different folks! Antony asked me to send him the sections on the sonnet and the Selima Hill analysis that I’d revisited following our last meeting in the summer; I sent it, on the understanding that the Hill section would be redrafted now to some extent in the light of the ‘masks and mirrors’ focus. There is lots of useful stuff in ‘My Sister’s Sister’, on masks in particular; redrafting it won’t be a huge problem. So, altogether it was a productive meeting and I came away feeling good about my work and I actually felt as if the end might be in sight.

After the meeting Antony sent me an example of a creative-critical PhD thesis that might give me some insight into the process of writing it. It was, he said, nothing like my own work, but the style of the writing might be helpful for me. I read it in bed on Tuesday night. It was a PhD from Edgehill University, so it had a heavy emphasis on poetics, which is an Edgehill creative writing interest: I know this because a friend has just completed her MA in Creative Writing from Edgehill. So the thesis was quite avant garde in it’s approach; but it was a useful read, because a large part of it wasn’t really prose at all, but a fairly staccato series of reflections, a list in single sentences. It was food for thought, though, that the thesis can be what you want it to be, that it doesn’t have to follow academic rules. This is reassuring to one who has struggled to become fluent in acadamese.

On Saturday it was the Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. James Sheard ran a poetry workshop in the morning: it was interesting because we didn’t actually do much writing, but we did a great deal of discussing ideas. The theme of the discussion was ‘the territory of the poem’: territory in terms of ‘place’ but also the psychological territory explored in poetry. I found this useful. The piece of writing we were asked to do as a culmination of the disucussion was focussed on a particular place we visit regularly in our poems; we had to make notes on the place in terms of its concrete elements that make it real. I chose Lillingstone Dayrell churchyard, where my brother is buried. My brother’s death was a huge event for me when I was fourteen; he was just seventeen. I began by thinking about the churchyard, the yew trees, the gravestones, the situation of the church surrounded by fields, the church itself, its Norman origins, its huge wooden door which is never locked, the cold discomfort of it. And then the thought popped up that it was here ‘I came face to face with God and I turned my back’. Wow. It’s true, this was when I became an atheist; at my brother’s funeral, when they put his coffin in the ground and threw soil onto it. How could a beneficent god allow that? There is the skeleton of a poem in that thought alone. So it was a productive morning all round.

The afternoon event involved music from students of Chetham’s School in Manchester: so young, but so much talent. There were two string quartets, one played to start the event, the second opened after the break. They were wonderful. The poetry readings were by Rebecca Hurst, Kayo Chingonyi and James Sheard. As usual it was a wonderfully uplifting event: poetry and music in the south gallery; and the green parakeets in the trees of Whitworth Park through the huge windows. Fantastic.

It’s been a productive and positive week. Oh yes!

I’ll leave you with another nonet: I promise I’ll break the habit soon. This is a response to a longer poem, ‘Not good enough for sainthood’, that I wrote from another perspective, the sister’s, on the same event. It is part of the sequence of multiple viewpoints for the same event, the untimely death of a young man, my brother. This nonet is written in his voice; it doesn’t stand alone particularly well, perhaps, but it works in the context of the sequence, I think.

 

I didn’t ask for sainthood

 …truth is, it hijacked me that summer
out in the fields, helping strong men
harvest hay; gut wrenching pain,
theatre, surgeons, counting
to ten backwards then
the eternal dream.
I much preferred
annoying
you.

Rachel Davies
November 2017

 

The 3 Pees: PhD, Poetry and Parking Fine

Hard to believe, but this is the first time since I left school that I’ve been registered as a full-time student. I decided on full-time because six years seemed like forever when I started this PhD: I knew I would be 71 when I finished, even if I registered full-time, and that seemed old enough for anyone to be studying in this depth. So I registered for the three year, full-time option; and even then, three years seemed like a long time. Now, I’m well into the third year, the sand is running out. I recently paid my first of the final year instalments; only two more to pay!

But I keep chipping away at it like a word sculptor, making it take shape. I’m beginning to see the finished piece. Sunday last saw me at my desk after breakfast. I decided to make a start on putting my theoretical reading into something. I had thought not to write anything until after my meeting with my supervisory team: we’re meeting on Tuesday this coming week to discuss my ideas about masks and mirrors in self development. But it seemed like a good idea to have something to show them where I intend to go with it, so I started writing my piece on Sunday. I realised in writing it that it was heavy on mirrors with less on masks, so another library search found a good academic article on multiple identities in adolescents: multiple identities is an aspect of masking, so that was really useful.

So Sunday was a good day’s work. I picked it up again on Tuesday. More library searching and I found another article on Winnicott’s theory of the True and False self. I have read Winnicott, but this was a useful article, and it put me in the direction of a Winnicott book I haven’t found yet. They have a copy in MMU library, so I’ll be seeking it out on Tuesday. I drafted my own writing onto the recent review I wrote on Pascale Petit’s poetry: it’s that I’m going to develop for the Petit chapter of the thesis. I ‘red-penned’ places to be developed and notes to self on where to go next; and it was at this stage when I sent it off to Antony and Angelica as a discussion document, with the proviso that it is a very early draft discussion document, not an academic piece needing assessment.

I also heard from Jean Sprackland on Tuesday. She reminded me we haven’t met for ages and perhaps we should set up a meeting soon. It is indeed some time since we met: it must be last May when we last had a discussion around the creative aspect of the PhD. We talked then about concentrating on form and syllabics. Although I have new poems for the portfolio since then, I’ve written very little within those form perameters. So I got back to her asking if we could meet in December: I’ve been concentrating too much on the critical side—as usual—and the creative has been back-burnered somewhat. December would give me time to compose some poems for discussion. Her reply was we could leave it till January if that helps; so agreed on January as a deadline and I wished her Merry Christmas, despite it being early November. I’m a ‘keep Christmas for December’ person: as a recent FaceBook meme said, ‘There are twelve days of Christmas and none of them are in November’. So it seemed strange giving out Christmas wishes in November; but not as strange as the house I saw the other day, all decorated up for the season. Please!

As a result of that email from Jean, and in light of the critical piece having gone off for discussion, I did concentrate on the creative aspect on Saturday. I spent the day in my cat’s favourite chair—he wasn’t impressed—in the study, notebook and pencil in hand and worked on a new poem in a syllabic format. I’ll include the early draft at the end of this blog. It’s only a short poem, a nonet; but it took a big bite out of the morning. I think I’m pleased with it, but I need to put it away for a week or two and come back to it with fresh eyes to know for sure if it’s repaying the time and effort. I also wrote a second poem based in the ‘timeline’ idea from Mark Pajak’s workshop in Nantwich last month. I chose the wrong poem for my starting pistol, I think, and my own poem doesn’t work. It’ll be deleted from my MacBook later today. Sometimes you know immediately they don’t work; not even worth working on. It happens. I’ve learned that to write that kind of poem, you need a starter with a distinct story, an ‘event’ poem. I tried to work from one of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica poems, to tie it in with the critical aspect. It didn’t work, not enough happening as a story. I decided I need more direction in my creative work so I devised a plan for a series of poems to follow a story, multiple characters and voices all focussed on the same event. I’ll be working on that later today.

In other news: Poetry and Life. In ‘Poetry’, my copies of Magma: The Deaf Issue and PN Review dropped on my mat this week. Good to see poets I know personally and some who are only known to me through their words in there along with poets who are new to me. I’ll enjoy reading these two lovely magazines in my tea-breaks this week. I also paid the balance on the Poetry Carousel that Kim Moore is running in Grange-over-Sands in December. I’m really looking forward to that one: a round of poetry workshops with David Morley, Hilda Sheehan and Steve Ely as well as Kim. It’s been an expensive couple of weeks; but worth every penny.

In ‘Life’, Bill had an appointment at the hospital on Thursday. It took ages to find a parking space: all the hospital car parks were full with several cars looking for spaces. I tried the local streets but they all have ‘Permit Only’ signs, so no joy there. After about fifteen minutes of driving around looking, I came across a car park at the back of the hospital I didn’t even know existed until Thursday. I found a space and was so excited to have parked the car and be just about in time for his appointment—if we could find the location of the clinic—that I forgot to pay. Yup, I had a little packet behind the windscreen wiper when we returned to the car later. I handed it to Bill to take care of. Two parking tickets in one month? Seemed fair to share this one! Then on Friday, I met my friend Joan for dinner. We meet once a month. Joan has recently joined a reading group and they have been reading the poetry of Ruth Padel, which reminded me of her Radio 4 programme ‘Poetry Workshop’ that my Poetry Society Stanza was involved in in 2012. We had a lovely afternoon working with her; she is a gracious and generous woman. Joan was pleased to know I had met her.

So, to my latest poem: so new the ink’s barely dry. I was thinking how it’s easy to hold grudges against the ones who reared us. My own children have this on-going banter about how hard-done-to they were as children. But when I reflected on my relationship with my own mother, which wasn’t an easy one, I realised that life was hard for her, that she had to give up so many of her own aspirations in being a wife and mother. She was born too soon, should have had a career as well as a domestic role. She was too intelligent, gave too much to being a wife and mother. I think it hurt her in ways we weren’t aware of as children, but which I appreciate now, as an adult looking back. That is what this is about, if it’s about anything.

 

Molly 2

Why did we expect her to give like
some dumb altruistic martyr
beguiled by an after-life?
We were the stakes of her
endless slow-burning
woodpile, turned our
deaf ears to
her mute
screams

 

Rachel Davies
11.11.17

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember, Remember…

 

Years ago, when I was a class teacher in Peterborough, the headteacher I worked for read a poem in assembly one day. It was this time of year, the start of November. The poem was a long list of ‘no’—no light, no sun, no leaves on the trees, etc—and its last line was ‘November’. I think of that poem every year; but I can’t remember any more of it than that, and I can’t remember who wrote it, either. I’ve tried Google, but I don’t know enough of it to be useful. Do you know the poem, the poet, where I can find it? I’d love to hear from you if you do. It’s 5.30 a.m. and November is happening right now outside my window. The rain is lashing, the wind fighting the trees; these are the only sounds I can hear. Perhaps I should be writing my own ‘November’ poem.

Oh my, I’ve had a good week; except Sunday, which was a day of good intentions, paving the road to hell. I meant to do some work. I needed to do some work. I didn’t do any work. I prevaricated so long, had one more pot of tea, watched Andrew Marr, stayed out of Bill’s way while he repaired the under-cupboard lighting in the kitchen, stroked the cat—all those really important things you have to do before you can get down to work. Then I looked at the clock on the telly screen and it was nearly lunchtime already. Oops. When I went into the kitchen to make lunch I realised the telly clock was still showing BST; I didn’t realise it required a manual change over. I altered the clock; finally I gave up on work.

But it wasn’t a disaster, because I dedicated Monday to work instead: the best, most productive day I’ve had for some time, one of those days when you can see the wood among all those trees. I had agreed with Amie that I would dog-sit her two Cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny on Monday, along with her sister-in-law’s Lassa Apso, Bella. I went to her house on Monday morning, early, with a bag full of books and technology, determined to work all day. Amie and Angus went to a family funeral in Thirsk. The dogs were a bit excitable at first but they soon calmed down. Bella, who is nearly as old as me in dog-years, was a bit nervous being left with a stranger and two boisterous young dogs, kept leaving little puddles on the kitchen flags, bless her. I took the boisterous ones out for a walk just before lunch: they pulled me up the lane, then pulled me back down again. It was exhilarating! The rest of the day I worked. I did so much systematic reading, real preparation for the theoretical framework for the next chapter of the thesis. I re-read Lacan on mirror-stage theory; I read Winnicott and Bowlby; I re-read Benjamin. I took copious notes; I even made a note of books I needed to find in the MMU library. I worked for about five hours all together, and felt really satisfied when I finished.

On Tuesday I packed a healthy lunch and headed for Manchester to MMU library. The problem with going into the library, it’s a big expenditure of time for little reward. It takes a couple of hours of travelling to get there and back, and I’d rather spend that time working. That’s why I prefer to buy my books; but the Winnicott book I wanted was £20 second-hand from Amazon, so the library it was.

I found the books I was looking for and had another morning reading: Winnicott Playing and Reality; I read the chapters I needed in the library and although I didn’t feel I had achieved anything I didn’t know already from reading about his theory in Benjamin, at least now I had a first-hand reference, always a Brownie point in a PhD bibliography. I ate my lunch in the social space beside the library: it wasn’t a day for picnics; then I went back to search for a couple of other books, and although I found them, I didn’t feel they contributed anything to my work. I went home.

On Tuesday evening it was our Poetry Society Stanza. We had agreed to dress up for Halloween and read ghostly, witchy poems for the occasion. I don’t really like Halloween. In the religious calendar it’s the eve of All Saints Day, ‘the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed’ (Wikipaedia). But it has become a capitalist money-making machine and ‘celebrations’ bear no resemblance to this religious remembrance. Not that I’m religious at all; I’m really not. But I’m no capitalist either. So normally I leave Halloween to those who don’t mind being given one more opportunity to be ripped off by billionaires. But this year we agreed to dress in our Halloween costumes and read scary poems. So I borrowed a witch’s dress from Hilary, who was away in the Antipodes and couldn’t be with us, and bought my own witch’s hat and headed for Mossley. In the event, there were only two members present. Several members had been laid low by microbes and sent last minute apologies. Just Pat and me, then. Pat, who is an artist, had made a most glorious witch’s cloak with papier maché skulls and all sorts hanging from it. She won the fancy dress prize for sure. But although there were only two of us, we had a lovely evening reading the poems we’d brought: the witch’s speech from Macbeth, obviously; Jane Yeh’s ‘The Ghosts’; I took along an anthology of poems about the Pendle Witch Trials from a project I was involved in with Clitheroe Stanza in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the infamous trials and I read a couple from that. Luckily we both took lots of poems and our readings and discussions lasted all evening. It’s always good to have time to enjoy poetry.

On Wednesday it was my usual day doing the books at the Black Ladd. After lunch I picked up the post from the shelf where the staff leave it and there was a parcel with my name on. Often, when I buy online, I have parcels delivered to the pub because I don’t have to worry about missing the delivery: there’s always someone there to receive the post. But I couldn’t remember ordering anything online recently. So I took a sneaky look inside. It was a pair of Ugg gloves. I rang Amie. Yes they were for me. When I was dog-sitting on Monday, I’d left my old Ugg gloves at her house when I went home. One of the gloves has a hole in the forefinger. I’ve repaired one of the fingers, but this is a wide hole, big enough to need a patch. I’ve been meaning to replace them this year when the winter stock is in the Ugg shop, but haven’t got round to it yet. Amie had been going to send me flowers for to say ‘thank you’ for dog-sitting, but seeing the state of my gloves she’d decided to replace them for me. ‘It’s only like three bunches of flowers,’ she said. Bless her heart. So now I’ll try to repair the unrepairable gloves and donate them to a homeless woman next time I’m in Manchester.

On Friday I had a message from Hilary, who is currently enjoying a holiday in Tasmania. Lemn Sissay is coming to the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham in January, did I fancy it? We both saw Lemn at Wenlock Poetry Festival a couple of years ago: he is such an entertaining reader. I first heard him read some years ago at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. He was recording ‘Why I Don’t Hate White People’ for Radio 4. It was fantastic. At the Coliseum in January he will be presenting his one-man play, ‘Something Dark’. So of course I fancy it; I bought five tickets: for Hilary and me and our respective partners and for Hilary’s sister Cath. It should brighten a cold January day.

Yesterday I completed the systematic reading I’ve been working away at all week. So later today I’ll be at my desk again, writing it all into the chapter on ‘masks and mirrors’ for the thesis. I’m looking forward to getting down to writing: it always feels good to have something productive to show for your efforts.

So, it’s November 5th, the night we all remember Guy Fawkes and his friends who tried to blow up Parliament while it was in session in 1605. We light bonfires topped with his effigy, we ignite fireworks to simulate the gunpowder he planned to use. Of course, he wasn’t successful; so what we really ‘celebrate’ is the disembowelling of a group of terrorists. We are a strange bunch. Here’s a memory of bonfire night from my childhood. We didn’t ‘do’ fireworks: my mum was a nurse and knew only too well the damage fireworks can do. But one year she gave into pressure and let us have fireworks. It didn’t end well!

 

All The Excuse You Needed

you told us horror stories from your life as a nurse

but we ground you down slowly for years until you gave in

so we all went with Dad to Ken Harker’s to choose legal bombs

how we waited for the velvet darkness of that fenland night

how we tied Guy Fawkes to the stake

how at last we lit the bonfire we’d been building for weeks
chucked scrubbed potatoes into the flames,
held mugs of piping hot soup in gloved hands

how our eyes soared into a universe reformed by a super-cluster
of new galaxies from that first launched rocket

how he knew better than the Fireworks Code
spurned the tight lidded biscuit tin, shortened the safe distance
from the blaze, lit blue touch-papers and didn’t retire

how an athletic fire imp jumped the short arc
from blazing fire to fireworks box

how the fireworks all ignited together, a spectacular display
we only heard, a symphony of terrifying booms and whistles

how we saw nothing at all of that constellation of colour,
its spinning wheels, its horizontal rockets, its jumping jacks

how we all turned our backs and ran for our lives

how for years we had to make do with imagining
what that display might have looked like

because this was all the excuse you needed

 

Rachel Davies
November 2017

Family, microbes and the occasional witch.

Some weeks you have to push hard to get any PhD work in. This has been one such. It has been a week with family; and a week of fighting off the microbes. But I have managed some constructive work too.

On Sunday I continued to concentrate on the creative side of the work. I did some more submitting of poems. I sent to The Interpreters House; and I bit the bullet and took Michael Symmons Roberts’s advice and sent some of my ‘mother’ poems to Rialto. I don’t hold out much hope: it’s a serious publication; but they’ve gone and I haven’t had an immediate rejection, so I’ll take that as a positive. However, they do say on the website that it could take three months to make a decision, so I’ll just forget about them now and wait. Unfortunately I heard very quickly from TIH: almost return of e-mail. I had sent the poems as separate Word docs; the website specifically asks for poems to be sent in a single document, so I was asked to resubmit following the submission guidelines. I’m very grateful to be given the chance to resubmit. I administer online entries to our Poets&Players annual competition and I get really annoyed with people who ignore the submission guidelines. So I was very embarrassed to have done that myself: I apologized profusely, resubmitted as per the guidelines and made a mental note to be less irritated when P&P is open for entries next year!

On Monday I had lunch with Amie and Richard. Richard is a teacher and it is his half-term break so he came up to the miserably moor-grimed north and we went out for lunch. We took a lovely walk into Uppermill from Delph along the route of the old Delph Donkey railway line. Signs of autumn everywhere, obviously, which included some stunning bracket fungi similar to this one, only darker, like an Oreo biscuit. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe ate in Muse in Uppermill: they allowed us to take Amie’s dogs inside, which was lovely of them.

On Monday evening, after Richard had returned to the Flatlands, Bill and I went into Manchester for the first of the latest season of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It was lovely to meet up with several poet friends. These are lovely events: CAD hosts the readings and reads a couple of her poems followed by MA students of the MMU Writing School; then the evening completes with a poet of national/international standing giving a reading. At this event Keith Hutson, MA student, presented a radio play he has written about the stormy relationship between the fifties/sixties comedians Hilda Baker and Jimmy Jewel. It is a short two-character play and it was very good. Keith writes a lot about iconic music hall performers, he’s a bit of an expert; the play is an extension of this poetry interest. The national/international poet this time was Andrew McMillan, who joined the Writing School as a lecturer this term. I love Andrew’s poetry, so sensual, physical. You can read about his work here: https://www.andrewmcmillanpoet.co.uk

On Tuesday I had a head-cold brewing. I did some PhD work. The two don’t necessarily mix well. I decided to stay with the creative aspect until I’ve had a chance to discuss my ideas for the critical aspect with the team. So I got out the ‘how-to’ books for ideas for poetry. I went to one of the books a friend had sent for my birthday: John Redmond’s How To Write A Poem. It is a book about looking at different emphases in poetry: multiple voices, point of view, who is being addressed, scale and vista etc. Each chapter is short, with examples of well—and lesser—known poets; and each chapter includes a writing prompt. I read a couple of chapters, but didn’t get around to using the prompts. I kept dozing off over the reading, so I gave up at lunchtime and pampered myself on the sofa with some old episodes of crime dramas: Morse and Vera. There’s nothing like a good crime drama for a bit of escapism when you’re feeling below par, I find. My younger son, Mike, rang for a chat, so that was nice. He called me Nurse Ratchett for my unsympathetic treatment of Bill’s knee injury in my blog last week, which made me laugh. Apart from a ‘clonking’ Bill can feel when he walks, said knee is on the mend. He managed the walk into Uppermill quite well on Monday anyway, although I did have to collect him in the car for the return journey.

On Wednesday and Thursday the cold really made its presence felt. I went about my usual routines, but I was glad to get back to putting my feet up. On Wednesday I had an email from Antony, my Director of Studies, asking if we could meet on November 14th as next week is ‘employability week’ at MMU, whatever that means. Then on Thursday I had an email from The North asking the ‘prose writers’ for a short biography to accompany the pieces we had written. I had submitted a revised version of my Pascale Petit review more than a week ago; so I hope the request for a biography means they have accepted it, although I’ve had nothing to say so. I asked the question when I sent my biography off, but still not heard officially. What do you think?

Friday morning was taken up with a visit to Oldham Royal Hospital. Bill was given an appointment for the fracture clinic last week when he presented to A&E following the injury to his knee; although there was no fracture, the A&E doctor pointed out that it was really an ‘acute orthopaedic’ clinic and she wanted to be sure from an expert that there was no lasting damage. We arrived with plenty of time, were seen early and were on the road again before the actual time of his appointment, so that was good. Unfortunately the doctor we saw was a hand expert and couldn’t really tell Bill much about his knee that we didn’t know already: arthritis was present. So he advised contacting his GP and getting referral to a knee specialist. Who knew there were specialists for every joint in the human body? So the drama of the knee injury, like all the best soaps, is to be continued. And no, I’m no more sympathetic than I was last week, Mike. I think it’s probably an ex-nurse thing.

Yesterday I decided I would work a bit more on the critical side of the PhD to see if I could put together enough of a chapter to send to Antony and Angelica prior to the meeting in a couple of weeks. I’m very aware of the time constraints of this, my final year. So I went back to my theoretical reading: re-read the Lacan bit about the mirror stage (I understand the concept, but his writing is really inaccessible) and I did a library search, so now I need to visit the MMU library to borrow a couple of books. I checked them out on Amazon, but they were about £20 each; so I’ll borrow first and buy if they are indispensible. I started to re-read Jessica Benjamin The Bonds of Love too, which has a good chapter on mutual recognition, which is really what Lacan’s mirror stage theory is about, I think. So, a good morning’s work, by which time the head-cold was making itself felt again. I called it a day, stopped for lunch and watched Man U beat Spurs 1-0 to secure their second place in the Premiership table.

That’s it, then: another week done. I really need to knock on, so this week I’ll have to defeat the microbes or learn to live with them. Sympathy? No, I don’t want sympathy. I want to be microbe free: we all know what the common cold did to the Martians in War of the Worlds: they can be tricksy little buggers.

On Tuesday this week it’s Halloween, so I’ll leave you with a poem about my Grandma: not a real one, I didn’t know the real ones, but the one I wish I’d had. I invented her to fill the grandma gap. I hope she did exist, I quite like her. And it’s a sonnet, one for the portfolio.

 

Grandma was a white one

She flew a turbo charged Fazerblazer:
heated seat and pillion, power assisted
bristles. Her coven wasn’t impressed though,
snubbed her at the crossroads, turned their backs,
cast her out. Jealousy’s the new ducking stool
she said, helping herself to anything she fancied
from life’s cauldron without so much as a couplet.

She didn’t chant the old hubble-bubble, just
threw in a word or two, a wow phrase, a strong verb,
the merest pinch of an adjective.
She wrote each stanza as if it was her last.
Fly where you’re not wanted, that’s
what she taught me. Come down in a mess
of family, reinvent them like you mean it.

 

Rachel Davies
2017

Cake, cider and Paperchase; oh, and Poetry.

This has been one of my favourite kinds of weeks, when poetry takes the driving seat.

On Sunday I was at my desk straight after breakfast, revisiting the review of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica and The Huntress. I took out the more academic passages, included a couple of the (shorter) poems and précis-ed other passages to keep within the advised word-count. I sent it off just before a late lunch, advising the editor, Suzannah, that I haven’t sought permissions from the publisher, Bloodaxe, to use the poems. I haven’t heard anything since, so I’m hoping no news is good news and they are seeking said permissions prior to publication; although I’m a terminal optimist, so what do I know? Anyway, fingers crossed.

On Tuesday, I was at my desk early again. I decided to work on the review to turn it into a PhD thesis chapter. I spent most of the morning doing lots of reading about mirrors, how we learn who we are in the mirror of others’ reactions to us. Obviously lots of stuff in Lacan—which I can almost understand—and in Bowlby, which is much more reader friendly. But in other theorists too; so I got carried away with the index searches and reading—that’s so easy—and didn’t get any writing done all morning.  In the week I came across this blog-spot that outlines the difficulty of actually starting academic writing, a difficulty I can relate too: it spoke to me entirely:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/phd-diary-where-do-i-begin

I had a break for lunch then back to my desk for the afternoon.I decided to grasp the nettle and start writing. By the end of the day I had a page and a half re-written with academic references. I think I’m pleased with it; but then it occurred to me that it’s a minor change of direction and may need to involve the Hill chapter as well so I sent an email to The Team to set up a meeting to discuss it. I won’t be sending them anything, because I don’t think I’ve done enough to warrant them reading it yet, but I do feel I need to talk to them. I’m waiting to hear.

On Thursday Bill slipped on some wet leaves on the steps outside our front door and twisted his knee. He didn’t seem in too much pain, thankfully. In the afternoon I sent off five of my ‘mother’ poems to an online journal, Riggwelter. This is a journal with editorial links to Three Drops in a Couldron, so I was hoping I would be successful. I’d heard they have a fast turn-around but even so I was pleasantly surprised to hear within two hours that they had taken ‘Her Hands’ for publication in the December edition.

When I came home from Slimming World in the evening, it was raining for Noah in the wake of ex-hurricane Ophelia. I opened the front door and a big fat frog flopped into the foyer out of the rain, then realising it had got itself into an alien situation it didn’t like much, it flopped out of sight under a chest I keep by the front door. I called Bill to help; his knee was beginning to stiffen up and it was ‘clunking’ when he walked. He limped downstairs but managed to get down on his hands and knees to coax the frog out from its hiding place so I could coax it into the wet outdoors again. Bill said he thought he should take himself to A&E. I wasn’t so sure. I hate giving four or five hours of my life to waiting in A&E unless I’m certain we have an emergency on our hands and I didn’t feel he had done sufficient damage to call on the time of the already overstretched resources of the NHS. But I’m notoriously unsympathetic of illness and injury so what do I know? We agreed that mid-evening probably isn’t the best time to go—waiting times are ridiculous— and decided to get up early and go in the morning if it wasn’t any better. So, Friday saw us getting up at 6.00 a.m. and heading off to Oldham Royal for a check up. Really, our NHS is wonderful and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. We were seen very quickly by the triage nurse, and quite quickly by a doctor who didn’t think any huge damage had been done but would order an x-ray just in case. It transpires there is no fracture but a good deal of arthritis, which we knew already as Bill is currently on a physio course for that very thing. However, he was referred to the acute orthopaedic clinic in a week to get a final check. We were two hours there altogether; two hours I couldn’t really afford, if I’m selfishly honest. So when he asked me to drive him to Werneth so he could call into said physio clinic to explain why he wouldn’t be there today I gave him a firm ‘no’: the telephone has been invented for just such a conversation and I had places to be.

I went to the Black Ladd to do the tills after I dropped him off at home. Then I wrapped the Apple watch 18th birthday present we (Amie, Richard, Michael and I) had bought for her stepson, Ben. I left it on the desk for Amie. Our cars crossed at the gates as I was leaving and she was arriving for work. I went home to drop the car off, and realised I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I made some quick toast before leaving the house and the Walking Wounded and catching the bus to Oldham Mumps to pick up the tram to Manchester. I left the car at home, because Hilary and I have devised a new ‘thing’: a cider, cake and Paperchase day. We met up at about mid-day. We had a lovely day starting with coffee and cake to warm us up; then Paperchase: one of our favourite shops. There are three floors of Paperchase in Manchester. We started at the top and worked our way down methodically. We saw everything: beautiful stuff, quirky stuff, stuff I want to own whether I need it or not. But we didn’t buy much in the end, we just looked. We didn’t want too much shopping to carry around with us. We each came out with a notebook and that’s it; but we’ll be going back soon for more, I don’t doubt. We moved onto the cider part of the day: into the Slug and Lettuce on Deansgate for a pint, then to afternoon tea in Patisserie Valerie. We called into the other Slug and Lettuce on Albert Square for another cider. Despite the wintry weather we sat outside. It was here we met up with David and Bill—yes he’d limped his way into Manchester on bus and tram to meet up with us for the evening event. We had tickets for the Michael Symmons Roberts reading at the Central Library. This was a Manchester LItfest event—more good stuff here: http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk

Michael was reading from his latest collection, Mancunia. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should. The day before the reading, it was announced that it’s on the shortlist for the T S Eliot prize: I’m guessing that won’t be its only accolade this year. The reading was wonderful, only minimally interrupted by a crying infant and much worse, her mother constantly rummaging loudly in a paper carrier bag to find something to placate the child. As well as Michael reading, there was input from Cesare Taurasi, a cast member from the recent TV screening of Michael’s Men Who Sleep In Cars. He read one of the poems; and another was incorporated into a film of old Manchester, with Michael’s voiceover. It was a wonderful night, and a perfect finish to a (mostly) good day. Of course, I bought Mancunia and got Michael to sign it.

Saturday I gave over almost entirely to the creative element of the PhD: as I’m waiting to discuss the critical side with my Director of Studies it didn’t seem a good idea to work any more on that. I spent the whole day revisiting my portfolio of poems to polish some of them for a pamphlet. By the end of the day I had sent off 30 pages of poems to the Indigo Dreams pamphlet competition. I’m quite pleased with them; but when I hit the ‘send’ button, I can always think of something I should have done differently to improve at least one the poems; but that’s just submission for you. There, they’ve gone and there’s nothing more I can do for them until the results are announced. Fingers crossed for them then.

Saturday evening it was Ben’s 18th birthday meal at Fresca in Delph. Oh, my! 18! How quickly time flies. I have known him since he was two: a lovely, kind, shy boy and here he is learning to be a man. Amie had organised a birthday cake in the shape of a VW camper van: Angus and Ben often go away in their own camper van, so it was a lovely cake to choose. After the candles had been blown out Ben, this lovely shy young man, got up to make a speech to say how happy he was that his family had come along to make his birthday special. We were all so proud of him. Happy birthday Ben.

Here’s a poem about a sloth that I wrote at the Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich last week. We had to write down everything we knew about a sloth, a kind of brainstorm. And then write the poem without using any of the things we had written down, which liberates (or forces?) you to invent new ways to say what you want to say. Anyway, here it is, my poem ‘Sloth’.

Sloth

 I could love one who lost
two toes in evolution,
couldn’t see the point of a full set.

I could love one who views the world
hanging from the branch of a tall tree,
the undershrub his ceiling
the sky his forest floor.

I could love one who is a philosopher,
ponders the energy of predator and prey
and arrives at the ergo of leaves.

I could love one who is no couch potato:
downtime is a vocation, sleep
a full-time job.

I could love one who is named
for a human failing
yet smiles at the irony of it.

Rachel Davies
October 2017

 

 

Poetry. PhD. Life.

This week has had a bit of everything in magnificent balance.

Sunday was spent mostly travelling back from Swindon. We had an open return ticket so we didn’t have booked seats; we thought it wouldn’t be a problem on a Sunday; and it wasn’t, on the train we caught from Swindon just before 12.00. We had seats together around a table. But this leg of the journey was only short. The train from Cheltenham Spa to Manchester was ram-packed: we eventually found seats beside each other, but they were on either side of an aisle. We were only able to move to seats together after Birmingham. We arrived in Macclesfield without incident. And there we stayed for an hour and a half: there had been a death on the line in Levenshulme and so no trains were being allowed into Piccadilly until the incident was cleared. I was reflecting on the sadness of someone being so desperate that the railway line was the answer. A fellow passenger thought only of the inconvenience to herself: surely there was more than one line into Piccadilly she said. We are human, but some of us have little humanity! We crossed the road from the station for a pint and waited for the next train to Manchester.

Tuesday I gave entirely to the PhD. I copied my Pascale Petit review into a second document and investigated how I can use it to form the beginning of a chapter of my thesis. Obviously it needed to be more in depth, more academic authority, more theory, more analysis of more poems. It needed to be ‘more’. I also reread the Selima Hill sequence ‘My Sister’s Sister’ to see if there was evidence of masks and mirrors in her work to make that an over-riding theme of the thesis. Obviously, ‘masks’ would be eminently arguable, because I see her ‘sister’ as a version of herself in this sequence; so the whole piece is ‘masked’ by the identity of the sister. I need to discuss this idea with my support team: I must set up a meeting soon. I also trawled the index of several of the main theoretical authorities I have been reading for references to masks or mirror; and found a surprisingly satisfying range. This could be a rewarding aspect of the work, I think.

Interestingly, later in the day I had an email from the reviews editor at The North, a response to my Pascale Petit review submission. ‘It’s an interesting piece and reads very well,’ she said, but the editorial team felt ‘it was more of an academic essay than a review.’ Given the issues I have had with academic language, this made me laugh out loud. I wondered what my Director of Studies would say about it if I were to send it to him as it stands: not academic enough, I suspect. However, Suzannah at The North suggested some edits to make it more acceptable for publication, and that’s what I’ll be doing later today. If I can get it back to them by tomorrow, and it is more in the house style, I think it will be in the next issue. Watch this space (again).

On Tuesday evening we went into Manchester for the live screening of the National Theatre’s (Benedict Cumberbatch’s) Hamlet. Oh my, how good was that? It was by far the best version of Hamlet I have seen in my entire life. He was brilliant, the production and direction was brilliant. Hamlet’s soliloquys were delivered with other actors on the stage: the lighting put Hamlet in the foreground, the other actors in the background, acting in slow motion as if time had stopped while we were given access to Hamlet’s thought processes. It was just wonderful; except for Gertrude’s announcement of Ophelia’s death. I love the first line of that speech: One woe doth tread upon another’s heels, so fast they follow. But when she goes on to describe how Ophelia died it all becomes too melodramatic; and I wonder, if someone observed all that dying, why didn’t they take action to pull her out of the water. But that’s just me, perhaps, being a literal thinker. There will be another live screening at the Printworks in Manchester this Tuesday coming; if you are in the area, I do heartily recommend it, you won’t regret it. It was an iconic performance.

On Wednesday, the prizewinning poems, including my ‘Chiggy Pig’, were up on the Battered Moons website: http://www.batteredmoons.com/2017-the-poems/

On Thursday I received my first Christmas present of the year. Yes, I know it’s only October; but I help at a Slimming World group on Thursday evenings and it was the Christmas launch this week with offers on the purchase of a twelve week ‘Countdown’, a prepaid twelve week session of commitment; and that twelve weeks takes us right up to Christmas Eve. Our Slimming World consultant gave all her helpers a Christmas card and present to get us in the spirit. I won’t open it until Christmas though. Probably not. Maybe. My own ‘weight loss journey’ this week was a disaster, after last week’s jaunts to London and Swindon, so I have my work cut out to do better this week. And that particular commitment was blown out of the water straight away on Friday when I met my friend Joan and we went out to eat in a new restaurant in Prestwich. Oh well; still the rest of the week to work on weight loss. Except on Saturday I went to a Thai restaurant in Nantwich with Hilary, had a lovely Thai curry lunch; and then scones with jam and cream for tea. Probably not a good Slimming World week then.

We were in Nantwich for the Words and Music Festival, organised by our friend Helen Kay, among others. A workshop in the morning, led by the brilliant young poet Mark Pajak was absolutely fantastic. He gave us a way of looking at poems of violence as timelines; which gave us an opportunity for backstory, or ‘what happened next’ poems of our own. He will be running an online course for the poetry school along similar lines in the spring I think; but there is nothing for 2018 on the Poetry School website yet. I really enjoyed it; and as a little light relief, we had an activity involving a sloth—nothing violent involved in this activity—and I wrote what could become a passable poem. In the afternoon we went to a reading by Carol Ann Duffy, and she was at her brilliant best. She read from The World’s Wife and Bees, poems I’ve heard several times; but she also read from Rapture. I haven’t heard her read from this collection so it was a new experience. And she called the sonnet ‘the little black dress of poetry’; which quote I must get into my chapter on the sonnet: it’s too good a quote to waste!

In the evening it was an open mic session of (mostly local) poets reading their own work. Hilary and I both had a five minute slot and I read some of my mother poems as well as the poem I wrote at the Poetry Business writing day, about being seventy: I included it in my blog ‘Masks and Mirrors’ on October 1st. I love open mic sessions, because poets of all abilities get an audience; and it is so good to reflect on the buzz people get from writing creatively. Any creativity is definitely good for the soul.

So, wow, another wonderful week. Is there any other kind?

Here is one of the new ‘mother’ poems I read yesterday. I don’t know if it’s about my mother, or about her daughter; but I really like it, whatever. It came from a prompt in one of the many books I took away with me to Zakinthos in September.

 

 Inheritance

She came from a long line of Amazons
who could catch a flying fuck
and make a poem of it.

She came from the bloodline of Boudicca
her hair the flames that would ignite Rome.

She came from the flatlands
where the North sea is a lament
calling itself back through cuts and dykes.
She turns with the tide.

She came from the soil, grew
wild as bulrushes, untamed
as the brambling hedgerows, fruitful
as a codling orchard.

She came from the confluence of love and hate,

She came to you as gift. Unwrap her slowly.

 

Rachel Davies
September 2017

Trains, Chiggy Pigs and Celebrity Spotting

Such a week I’ve had this week. This blog began two years ago at the start of my PhD, as a reflection on how a PhD will push its way into an already busy life, and grow alongside all the other busy-ness of a retired workaholic. Well, the simple answer this week is: it hasn’t. PhD has had its nose well and truly disjointed by other aspects of my life. It’s strange, isn’t it, that I go on holiday and pack PhD to come with me, work for two hours a day while I’m away, get loads of work done; and yet on a week when I’m at home and should be able to work on it for hours I haven’t been able to fit it in anywhere, except the small amount of reading I’ve managed in bed. So, apologies to PhD, I’ve been slacking; but oh my, what a brilliant week I’ve had!

On Sunday last week I joined the anti-Brexit march in Manchester, where the Tory Party was holding its annual conference at what used to be GMex. We marched past the back of GMex, but weren’t allowed within a shout of the front for security reasons: understandable, but annoying non-the-less. So hats off to Simon Brodkin, the P45 delivery man, for breaking the security barrier! On Sunday an estimated 35,000 of us walked through the streets of Manchester, from All Saints Park to Piccadilly Gardens, with trumpets, banners, flags and slogans, letting the world know what we thought of the pig’s ear that is Brexit (I still hate that word, even if it has made it into the OED). ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ was my favourite shout of the day: there is something liberating about being able to shout a slogan within a huge crowd that you wouldn’t dream of shouting in your normal walks around the city streets on your own. This was my second ever demo and I loved it.

Monday I tried and failed to do the domestic thing and bring the ironing up to date. Ironing is the one thing that still annoys the 4th thoracic vertebra, and I had a seriously sore back after only a few items. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I bought a new ironing board cover and couldn’t work out how it fitted: that ‘asbestos’ plate that the iron rests on wouldn’t fit back into its space. So I spent thirty minutes working that out before I even started ironing; and when I had eventually beaten it into submission and succeeded in reassembling the ironing board, the back was sore already. So I ironed a couple of things and then gave up and let the hot water bottle hug the pain away. I was fit enough for the aerobics session on Monday afternoon, but I left before the weights and floor work of the second half.

On Tuesday, I had an appointment with the rheumatologist about my evil auto-immune triplets: polymyalgia rheumatica, Giant Cell Arteritis and osteopenia. It was all good news though. I wanted to reduce the cortico-steroids in a bid to come off them altogether. Dr Klimiuk checked the blood results: all pleasantly normal. He asked about symptoms: nothing to report. So he has given me permission to reduce by 1mg a month until I’m off the Prednisolone altogether by next summer. If the symptoms return at all, I can increase again (being terminally optimistic, I’m ignoring this last as an irrelevance!) This reduction is a huge positive, as anyone who has taken this drug for any length of time will appreciate. I’ve been taking Prednisolone since December 2012. It does a wonderful job on the pain levels; but it comes with other issues, not least of which for me has been the shakes: you don’t want to be sitting next to me when I’m eating soup! So, that appointment took up most of Tuesday morning. I decided to go into Manchester after it to pick up the train tickets for our trip to Swindon at the weekend.

Wednesday morning, more NHS. I had an appointment with my GP for the subcutaneous abdominal injection of Denusomab, a drug to assist the assimilation of Vit D and calcium to protect the bones in osteopenic/osteoporotic patients. In a past life—six months ago—that would have been done by the nurse specialist at the same time as the appointment with my rheumatologist. But, presumably in a cost-cutting efficiency exercise, that part of the treatment has reverted to GP surgeries, so now, instead of one visit, it takes up three mornings and the time of three busy professionals instead. The injection itself doesn’t take long, but it takes up a disproportionate amount of time in the process. Firstly, some weeks back, I had to order the prescription for the drug, take it to the pharmacy who informed me it would be sent back to the surgery to be stored in their fridge. Then, last week, I had to have the blood tests to evaluate how successful it was being in assimilating the said Vit D/calcium into my body; then I had to go again to the surgery for the actual injection. All this on top of the appointment with the rheumatologist. This very convoluted process replaces the original one visit/all done at the rheumatology clinic. How is this improving efficiency? Answers on a postcard, please.

The rest of Wednesday was taken up with bringing the restaurant books up to date after my recent holiday.

Thursday was a big work no-no; I went with Amie to London. This was my Mothers Day present: yes I know Mothers Day was in March, but we were going to the theatre in the evening, and the tickets were my gift from Amie and Richard. We travelled first class on the train to Euston, which was an experience. I don’t agree with the classist attitude of ‘first class and plebs’ that exists on our railways; but it was nice to avail ourselves of it when the price sank into our price-range. When we arrived in London we took the tube to Covent Garden then did the touristy thing, walking around Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Regent Street. We seemed to walk for miles so we got the underground back to Covent Garden—Sky News’s Adam Bolton shared a lift with us—and had an early evening meal at a lovely bistro there before taking the underground to Hammersmith to meet up with Richard. We went to see Ricky Gervais in his show, ‘Humanity’. I know Ricky Gervais is a ‘Marmite’ act: you either love him or hate him. We love him. He was at his controversially satirical best in this show. He was supported by Doc Brown, who, I found out later, is the brother of the novelist Zadie Smith: a talented family. The two comedians were brilliant; but oh my, the audience was appalling. People were in and out of their seats throughout the performances, coming in late, going off to the bar to refill their glasses; and not quietly either. Is there some new trend that says you don’t have to consider the performers any more when you visit the theatre? I thought you got to your seat in time for the start and you stayed there until the interval; and you stayed there again after the interval until the end of the show. Some of the audience on Wednesday had missed that part of their upbringing, then. Piers Morgan was in the audience, and he was one of the nicest people there: it shows how bad some of them were!

We took the train back to Peterborough from Kings Cross and stayed over at Richard’s house before coming back to Manchester on Friday. Then on Saturday I was on the train again, with Bill this time, to come to Swindon for the Battered Moons competition celebration event. We changed trains at Cheltenham Spa, spotted Tom Daley and Tristram Hunt on the platform: this has been a big week for celeb spotting. The competition readings were last night: I’m writing this blog from my hotel bed. I met up with some old poetry friends: ‘Quiet Compare’ Sarah Dixon was there volunteering at the Poetry Swindon festival, of which this event was a part; Rachael Clyne, whom I met at a poetry week in St Ives earlier this year; and Julia Webb, a poet friend from Norwich, whom I met in York at the Stanza Reps meeting about four years ago. And there were new friends to meet as well, like Christina Newton, the wonderful woman who organised the competition and the reading event; and Malika Booker who was the competition judge and whom I missed when she read for us at Poets&Players a couple of weeks ago, so it was lovely to hear her read and now, of course, I must buy her collection; and Dalgit Nagra, whom I sat next to all evening and who is one of the loveliest men I know. I introduced myself and told him he short-listed a poem of mine in the Ilkley competition about four years ago. At that Ilkley celebration event—I got two free tickets for being on the shortlist—he introduced his Ramayana to the world; he had an Indian dancer there to interpret the words in dance, it was wonderful. Ramayana is still my favourite Dalgit Nagra work, I love it. To cap a wonderful evening, I had lots of lovely feedback from audience members on my commended poem, ‘Chiggy Pig’; and to ice the cake, I think I may have been invited to read at next year’s Cheltenham Festival: watch this space! I was high as a kite after the event when we came back to our hotel for a big glass of wine and ate the remains of our train picnic because we hadn’t had time to fit a meal into our day!

So that’s it; a wonderful week but the PhD is sulking because I shut it out. Don’t worry, I’ll be working that particular treadmill again this week: it won’t be ignored for two weeks running. I think I’ve said more than enough. I won’t leave you with a poem this week, but instead I’ll leave you with a link to the Battered Moons website, where you will be able to read all the winning poems, including ‘Chiggy Pig’, when the website is updated. This was a well-run competition, and a lovely event to celebrate the winners. If you like to write poetry, you should consider an entry next year.

http://www.batteredmoons.com

 

Masks and Mirrors

It’s been another busy week—is there any other kind?

On Sunday I first-drafted the review of Pascale Petit’s The Huntress and Mama Amazonica. I have concentrated on her themes of ‘masks and mirrors’ in both collections. Then I reorganised it and made a second draft. I sent this off to Hilary Robinson to read and for advice and feedback.

On Monday morning I drafted a new poem in bed. It was the writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street—we’ve been tasked to come up with a name for the group—in the evening, and I was concerned I had nothing new to take. So I wrote a poem about my mother, from one of the prompts in the many books I bought before my holiday. This prompt was to take the opening phrase, ‘I come from…’ and make this the start of every stanza. I adapted this to ‘She came from…’ and drafted my poem. I was rather pleased with it. So I took it to Leaf in the evening, and it was well received. I was given some constructive and useful feedback too; so now it is an even better poem. It was a lovely evening, as always, with some seriously good writing to discuss. I love the generous community of poets.

Tuesday saw me in Manchester bright and early for a day’s work at the MMU library. There were two books on the psychology of masks I wanted to read. Both were on a two week loan only, so I decided to read them in the library. The first one by Christopher Monte, Beneath the mask: an introduction to theories of personality (1999 Orlando Harcourt Brace College) was a big fat brick of a book, so I didn’t want to have to take that one home to read. It was the first one I tackled. It turned out to be a kind of résumé of various theories of masking from other psychological theorists. It would probably not be an acceptable book on the bibliography of a doctoral thesis, but it gave me lots of academic references to check out in more focused academic works: Jung, the Freuds, Winnacott, Karen Horney etc., so it was well worth the effort of reading the relevant chapters.

But oh my, MMU library was a distracting reading environment on Tuesday. The noise in there! Mobile phones going off, students answering them, library staff showing around freshers to introduce library systems. It was like trying to read in a market place. So, when I’d done all I could with Monte, I decided I’d take the other book, A L Strauss’s Mirrors and Masks, to read at home. I left the library and, it being a lovely day, I sat in All Saints Park to eat my butty before going home. The park was full of young students, crowded around a huge red ‘welcome’ installation, having lunch, chatting, getting to know new friends. A middle-aged woman was in there with a bag of peanuts, feeding a grey squirrel from her fingers: the squirrel was taking the nuts from her fingers with his little hands, very tame. It was good to watch. After lunch I went off in search of coffee and spent an hour reading the Strauss book in a Costa coffee shop, which turned out to be quieter and more conducive to reading than the library. I think the book is rather too sociological in its tenor, and, published originally in the fifties, is probably ‘old hat’ for a scholarly read. But I’ll stick with it for a bit, see what it has to offer.

On Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza meeting. This session was a writing workshop. Three members, Pat, Linda and Hilary had prepared writing prompts and we wrote poems from the prompts. Pat’s activity involved looking at, smelling, feeling and tasting a prickly pear. I saw these growing on huge cactus-like succulents in Zakinthos; they looked spectacular on the plant; but oh, my, they are a different thing to eat. Pat loved them; I think it’s fair to say she was the only member who did. To me, they were tasteless; or at least they just tasted ‘green’, the way grass might have done if I’d been eating that. The seeds were like indestructible little bits of grit. They were good to look at though. And the poems they inspired were worth a read. I won’t be having prickly pear in my fruit salad any time soon, though. The other activities? Linda’s involved a poetry form I hadn’t come across before, a ‘Quennet’, named for its inventor, the French oulipo poet, Raymond Queneau. It is a truncated form, using staccato adjectival phrases in a prescribed format. Hilary’s activity was a variation on the golden shovel. All-in-all it was a good night.

On Thursday people kept wanting to stick needles in me. I had blood tests first ahead of my next appointment with the rheumatologist about the Polymyalgia Rheumatica, Giant Cell Arteritis and Osteopenia triptych that has taken over my body. I’m hoping to reduce the corticosteroids again next week, fingers crossed. The second needle was in the hands of the lovely pharmacist in Uppermill’s Well Pharmacy: the annual flu vaccination. He is such a gentle man. We go there every year: no appointments necessary, no queueing up and totally NHS approved. I recommend him to anyone who will listen.

By Friday I had the feedback from Hilary on my ‘Mama’ review. It took a while for it to pass through the ether with all the comments in tact, but we managed it eventually. As a result, I wrote an additional paragraph before submitting it to The North for consideration. I have already had a provisional ‘yes’, so I’m hoping they will like it and include it in the next edition. Watch this space. I enjoyed writing it, whatever the outcome, and it’s a start on the chapter I’m planning for the thesis, so it won’t be wasted by any means. I’m really ready to get my teeth into the chapter now, and am considering redrafting the Hill chapter to bring more cohesion around masks and mirrors to the whole thing. Will this thing ever be finished to my satisfaction?

And lastly, Saturday. Yesterday was the Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield. Hilary and I left Saddleworth early to get to Sheffield in time for coffee before the event. It was lovely to see poetry friends there: Pam Thompson, John Foggin, Keith Hutson, Janet Lancaster and several others; also lovely to meet new people. The writing prompts were varied and stimulating as ever and the standard of writing was high. I love these writing days: if you are interested in poetry, I’m sure you would like them too; details here: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/workshops/writing-days

I took my aeroplane poem, the one I wrote about fellow passengers en route to Zakinthos. I received some really constructive feedback from most of the group; I also took a verbal kicking from a young female poet who thought it was sexist, prejudicial and ‘a snobby attack on single mums.’ Ouch. I can see why she might think that; but it was all inspired by actual events, so hardly prejudicial, I think. I’ll look at it again in the light of her feedback and decide if she had a point; but I’m not inclined to change a good rant just in the interests of political correctness; that would knock the life out of it.

So, a poem from yesterday’s Poetry Business workshop. We were asked to write about something that had ‘arrived’: a parcel in the post, a package for a neighbour, that kind of thing. I wrote about ‘seventy’ arriving. Here’s a first draft:

 

Significant

Seventy has arrived.
It knocked on the door, then waltzed in
uninvited, as if it had been expected.

Seventy has arrived
and taken over the lounge
with its greetings cards, its balloons and bunting,
its ‘seventy years young’ badges,
its ‘you don’t look a day over…’
its fire hazard birthday cake.

Seventy has arrived
and you, hot on its heels,
kicking it into submission with Doc Marten’s
salted and peppered with glitter
that settles on the ground like moon dust
as they walk.

Seventy has arrived
and the bee tattoo is its music.
Play it again.

 

Rachel Davies
September 30th 2017

Year three of three…

There, I’ve done it. I’ve registered for year 3 of the PhD. Two down, one to go. There were times (moments) at the end of year one/beginning of year 2 when I considered pulling the plug. It all seemed too hard. And it is. And it should be. I really thought it was beyond me; and what do I need a PhD for anyway? In a sense it’s a vanity project: a personal challenge to prove to myself I can do it. In those moments, with thoughts of quitting, I was convincing myself I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I can’t. I won’t know until it’s all done and I’m a success or not. But what I do know about myself is, I’m not a quitter. I persevered and here I am at the start of year 3 of 3. Once I relaxed and saw this as a journey and not a destination I started to really enjoy it. A good friend had her viva this week and she has attained her PhD. I am thrilled for her; although I always knew she would be successful. I genuinely don’t know if that success will ever be mine. But I have enjoyed the work and learned a lot: about the psychology of mothers and daughters; about the poetry of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit; about Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop; about the sonnet; and about myself. Obviously, I hope I’ll come out of this with a PhD; but if I don’t I’ll know I gave it my best shot. I also learned that when this is over, I’ll never pick up another book in anger. I’m done with study. Best-seller list for me after that viva next year!

This week I’ve been back in the swing of things after the holiday. Holiday? What holiday. It seems so long ago, I’ve forgotten it already. Real life has resumed itself. I have been researching the psychology of masks. I did an online MMU library search and up came loads of references for ‘masks’; but most of them seemed to be to do with computer technology. I have no idea what masks are in computer-speak but there are hundreds of academic articles about them. In amongst them—I didn’t give up looking—there were a couple of articles on the psychology of masks in a human context: the human masks, real and imagined, that we wear in everyday life. There were also a couple of promising books on the subject. I downloaded the articles and put the books on hold. I decided to read the articles to see if they give me what I’m looking for and then spend a day in the library checking out the books. The articles were just what I needed, so this week I’ll be in the library bright and early on Tuesday working with the books.

It’s been a good week on the poetry front too. I heard in the week that my poem ‘Chiggy Pig’ was ‘Commended’ in the Battered Moons poetry competition. This was a poem I wrote to one of Penny Sharman’s activities on our Bitch Week in Anglesey earlier in the year: to write a poem about a small creature. I chose the woodlouse because they fascinate me; and I always loved working with them in those ‘mini-beast’ projects we used to do with children in primary schools. When I drafted the poem, it was called simply ‘Woodlouse’. I took it to the Monday workshop at Leaf on Portland St. for feedback. They loved it but were puzzled by the last line: ‘fourteen jointed little porker’. I explained that we used to call woodlice piggies when I was a kid; Rosie Garland remembered then that they used to call them ‘chiggy pigs’ in her childhood in the west country. ‘Chiggy pig’ was too good a title to pass up, thank you, Rosie. I’ve booked train tickets and hotel for Bill and me to go down to Swindon for the presentation event on October 7th. It cost about nine times my prize money for the overnight stay and travel; but I help to organise the Poets&Players competition in Manchester and we really appreciate it when people turn up to read at the presentation event. It means a lot, feels like reward for the hard work of mounting the competition in the first place. So I will be there a week on Saturday introducing ‘Chiggy Pig’ to the audience.

I also heard that a selection of my mother/daughter poems—including the sonnet crown—has been long-listed for the Overton Prize; short-listing is in early October, so keep your fingers crossed for me, because this is one competition I really would like to progress in. And I have almost agreed an acceptance for the review of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in a ‘quality poetry magazine’; I’ll tell you which one when it is finally accepted. I won’t entertain even a thought that it won’t be. The deadline for submitting that review is also early October, so I’ll be working on that later today. It’ll put me well on my way for the Pascale Petit section of the thesis too. All good. Watch this space. This has all made me more determined to submit work more regularly. I’m a bit of a sluggard in this side of the work, but when I do submit I’m often more or less successful. I need to organise myself more.

My copies of The North, Rialto, PN Review and Magma came in the post. Lovely to see poet friends represented in these magazines. I’ve had only cursory reads up to now, checked out the work of poets I know personally; but there is a lot of reading in them for the coming months. I also received a ‘Magma’ tote bag in the post. Apparently, they messed up my subscription and sent the bag as compensation. I hadn’t noticed there had been an issue, so the tote bag was a complete and very pleasant surprise.

This week back from holiday has been a busy week in other ways too. My job keeping the books at my daughter Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd, has been a bigger-than-normal job this week with three weeks worth of work to make up after the holiday. It took up a long day on Wednesday and still not quite finished; but I’ll be up to date again this week. I also went to the Christie with her on Monday, where she is being monitored after surgery in 2014 for malignant melanoma. I’m pleased to say she is progressing well and it was all very positive feedback. Long may the positivity continue.

And friends. I met up with Hilary for a post-holiday catch-up on Tuesday. She has submitted her MA portfolio this week; three years of her life coming to a satisfactory conclusion. She’s off on a long celebratory holiday in October to places that include Bali, Australia, Tasmania, Singapore. I’m only a little bit jealous. And yesterday I met up in Manchester with Pauline, a friend from my school days. We became friends in the first term of grammar school; 59 years ago! How can that even be possible? We both suffered the ire of the demon head-teacher and every time we meet up we remember new and forgotten indignities at his hands. I think I’ve told you it’s down to him that I keep pursuing these qualifications? He told me the day I left school that I’d end up in the gutter for the unforgivable sin of talking to a boy from the secondary modern school. These were his parting words to me, a sixteen year old with low self confidence. I seem to have spent a lifetime negating that one remark. He’s long-dead now: I hope he’s keeping nice and warm!

So, here I am at the start of the final year of PhD. I began this blog to see how the work would fit into my busy life style: I think I’m doing OK. I’ll be buckling down and getting the work completed this year: I want it finished in first draft by about May next year to give me time for redrafting, editing, perfecting. It’s hard to believe it’s the third year already: it seemed so far away when I began. Ho hum. Tempus just keeps on fuging, as Reggie Perrin used to say.

I’m giving you two more verses of the poem I wrote on holiday, inspired by my travelling companions on the plane to Zakinthos. It’s still not finished, but I like where it’s going and I think it will find space in the portfolio. Enjoy.

 

 For I don’t deserve to die with these people

this mum has no sense of irony
for she feeds her girls Kwells—tells
them from a mouth wide as the Mersey tunnel,
tells them from a mouth that could have been
the prototype for the megaphone to
chew and swallow, chew and swallow
then administers copious doses
of fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away;

this mum asks if her darling girl
can have my window seat
and spits curare-tipped eye darts
when I say no; for when she grinds down
another traveller and the girl
sits in the window seat
smug as a lugworm,
she promptly pulls down the blind
on the remaining air-miles;

Rachel Davies
August 2017

In which I realise I can’t do everything…

I’m suffering the post-holiday blues. I haven’t been warm since I got home, although if I hadn’t been away the weather would seem quite mild for Saddleworth. And my body hasn’t adjusted to the time zone change, I’m still working on Greek time so I’m ready for bed at 9.00 at night and sleeping for England, which is unusual for me. I’m doing that post-holiday thing where you say ‘this time last week…’ I need to get a grip; but this time last week we were getting ready to go and find some loggerhead turtles, Caretta Caretta.We boarded the boat in a harbour just off Laganas. Searching for turtles seemed to involve the boat going round and round in circles in the harbour, along with about five other boats, until we actually spotted a turtle in the water; poor thing must have been a bit intimidated but I suppose they must be used to it. It was a majestic sight when we did spot one though. They really need to rethink their survival strategy though. They come to Zakinthos in April and stay till October. In that time the female can lay four or five batches of eggs, 100 in a batch. That’s up to 500 eggs, with a survival rate of 1%. That is serious endangerment. They are very well protected by the Zakinthian authorities though. We went to Turtle Island to see the breeding grounds on the beach: we weren’t allowed to go near the nests, but you could clearly see the tripods marking and protecting the nests from the boat.

But as you know by now, a holiday isn’t just a holiday; it involves work as well. Every morning I got up early and took a cuppa out to our balcony to do some work. I spent a couple of hours a morning analysing the poems in Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica. I analysed three or four poems in that time; and that is about as many as I could manage emotionally. They are very taxing poems to close read. It is a brilliant collection, similar but different from The Huntress. It is amazing how much more you see in a poem when you spend quality time with it. I am happy to report I completed the analyses on our last morning there. And now I have 17,500 words to draw on for the chapter in my thesis. So I’m pleased with that aspect of the work while I was away. A slightly optimistic conclusion to the analyses: I have sent out feelers for offering a review of Mama to a quality magazine—I won’t say which one at this stage, don’t want someone stealing my thunder; because I had a fairly positive response to my proposal. I’ll be following that up this week. The creative aspect, less satisfying: I wanted to write a poem a day while I was away and I didn’t manage anything close to that. My favourite time, early morning, was taken up with the analyses; and I don’t work well around lots of people and busyness; but I did draft some stuff—I can’t call them poems yet—and I kept my dream journal going for the fortnight. I seemed to dream a lot of dreams with ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers’ as elements. Am I regressing to a past life? I hope not; retirement is the best job I’ve ever had!

We arrived back in Manchester on Thursday evening and my lovely daughter was there to meet us off the plane. Since then it has been a long round of unpacking, laundry, shopping for food. And more PhD work. Yesterday was the September Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery: Clare Shaw, Malika Booker and Hilda Sheehan, and Olivia Moore providing the ‘player’ aspect. Unfortunately I didn’t make it: I always knew it was going to be a struggle and in the event I prioritised work; but I know it was brilliant because people keep telling me so on Facebook; I was genuinely sorry to miss it. The next event is in October, details here:

http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/events/george-szirtes-caroline-bird-andchuck-37848

It’s our annual collaboration with Manchester Literature Festival and it will be BIG. George Szirtes, Caroline Bird and Andchuck providing the music. This event is at Halle St Peter’s in the Northern Quarter, so make a note of that; also that you will need tickets for this one, available at the MLF website via the link. Unfortunately I have to miss this event too, bah! But you just know it will be good, don’t you?

Yesterday I got down to more serious work on the critical side of the PhD. I was rereading the theory related to mirrors and mirror images. Lacan’s Mirror Stage is not easy to understand: Lacan is not an accessible writer; but mirrors and masks feature heavily in Mama Amazonica and this will be a major focus for the Petit section of the thesis. So I reread and re-reread Lacan yesterday; along with commentaries on Lacan: The Cambridge Companion to Lacan; Bailly’s Beginners Guide to Lacan etc, and I think I have a handle on his thoughts. I think. I also read Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From; and an article I found on the MMU website about the importance of positive interaction in healthy child development, “Identification and subjectivity in a Year-3 classroom: using Lacan’s mirror stage to analyse ethnographic data” by Sue Walters published in the online journal “Ethnography and Education Volume 9, 2014 – Issue 1”. This was fascinating reading for me on two counts: it was helpful to my research; but it also spoke to me as an ex-headteacher of a primary school with high numbers of Bangladeshi heritage pupils.

 

So, I know what I want to say in the Petit section of the thesis but I’m worried, as ever, about sounding ‘academic’ enough; about sounding as if I actually have a level of authority over the theory. I have no idea how I will go about it; so I’ll do what I always do and wade in, a page at a time and perfect it over time.

 

That’s it then; holiday over, week over, blog over. I’m happy to be back and to be back on a healthy eating regime. I had a lovely time away; but it is the once-a-year binge. I’m actually glad I don’t have to live like that all year; I’d be elephantine after a couple of months.

Here is a very short poem I wrote on the aeroplane on the way to Zakinthos. It seems as if the aeroplane is stationary at 35,000 feet and it is the earth scrolling by below. That is the image I’ve tried to capture in this little draft.

 

Window Seat

the aeroplane hangs from sky
hovering like a harrier
while Earth on microfiche
scrolls by below

the pilot spots the quarry
of Zakinthos runway
and we start our slow dive
from sky to sun

Rachel Davies
September 201