Optimism: my default state

When I was a headteacher, my staff used to say I was ‘terminally optimistic’. I could always see a way forward, however hard and negative the outside world tried to make me feel. PhD has tested that optimism to its limits. I have hit all-time lows in pessimism and negativity during my time on the PhD; there have been times I’ve come close to jacking it in and getting my life back. But, ultimately, ‘jacking it in’ isn’t can option because I know how bad I’d feel if I did. I set myself this personal challenge and I must see it through to the end, whatever that end is. I think, reading back over last week’s blog post, I’ve been feeling a bit negative recently, a bit down about it all? This week, I’m back in fighting mode, and I feel better for it.

I’ve been working on the secretarial stuff that’s necessary to a successful outcome. So on Sunday I printed off the bibliography and read the thesis through again to make sure my footnotes were all in the right order after all the cut-and-pasting I’ve done recently. There are prescribed ways of referencing: Manchester Metropolitan University uses the MHRA style of referencing, and footnotes and bibliography need to adhere to the MHRA style guide: first reference a full inclusion of the publishing history of a book, subsequent footnotes an abbreviated form. I ticked off the items on the bibliography as I first referenced them so that I could correct anomalies raised by reordering the work. There were even one or two publications I had omitted from the bibliography that I had to include; and one or two items I had in the bibliography that no longer had a mention in the body of the work. They had to go. So that was all relatively easy to sort out. Less easy was knowing if some items had a slot in the bibliography at all. For instance, I’ve referenced the NHS website over an issue in the thesis: I checked out the implications for albinism, following a reference in one of Pascale Petit’s poems. Does the web address for the NHS site then get a reference in the bibliography as well as a footnote in the body of the work? It doesn’t have a named author, but it is an authority I’ve accessed. The MHRA style guide seems silent on this. I opted for including the NHS web-address in the bibliography as well.

When that initial job was done, I went back through the footnotes with a nit comb. I printed off the relevant advice from the MHRA style guide that advised on the format of footnotes and checked through to make sure all my footnotes were written in the preferred style. I’m trying to be more positive this week, so I’m not going to dwell on the pedantic nature of style guides; but really! Most footnotes, for instance, have a full stop at the end of them:

Selima Hill, Violet (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1997).

But if you reference a web page, and you include square brackets with an ‘accessed date’, no full stop:

Sharon L. R. Kardia and Tevah Platt‘In your grandmother’s womb: The egg that made you’, at <https://genedoe.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/in-your-grandmothers-womb-the-egg-that-made-you/> [accessed 30thNovember 2018]

And those < and > signs you need to include at the ends of web addresses bring there own kind of angst, because they make the web-address that little bit longer, so it won’t any longer fit on the line it was happy to be on before you put them in, and it swings down onto the next line, sometimes without its < sign! So just this secretarial job is demanding of time and scrutiny. I was glad of the uplifting touch of poetry to keep me sane.

I’ve worked on the referencing in most of my available time slots this week, but on Tuesday afternoon, tired of the pedantic nature of footnotes, I took time out for some creative work and wrote up a poem from Vahni Capildeo’s workshop at Verve in February. It’s a poem about ‘the Beast from the East’, that awful weather event last year. I looked over the poems Jean Sprackland had given me editorial advice on and I printed off one of those poems, ‘Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard’, a poem in three parts. I took the Beast, and the three-part poem to a workshop with two poet friends, Hilary Robinson and Natalie Burdett, on Tuesday evening. This is the second time we’ve met for this purpose, at a café in Oldham. We had food first and poetry after. We all take poems for feedback. Natalie’s also doing a PhD from MMU, so she’s always good for support, bless her. And, like all good friends, Hilary’s always there when I need a sympathetic ear. The three-part poem is now a four-part poem: following discussion on Tuesday evening, I split the final section, placing the first stanza of that section right at the beginning of the poem, and altering the ‘you’ of the section to ‘they’ and ‘she’. I think it works better for it. The community of poets eh? Such a positive force!

On Thursday Hilary and I went to York. We caught a lunchtime train and were in York before 2.00 p.m. We went to Betty’s for a late lunch. We shared a bottle of Gerwürztraminer, so lunch took us about three hours. While we were there, a woman caught the little vase of flowers on our table with her handbag, and I caught the little vase of flowers in my lap; so I spent the rest of the day with a big wet patch on my dress. Luckily it was to the side: I’m reaching that age when large wet patches on your dress can be embarrassing. She was so apologetic, bless her, but these things happen; quite often to me, it has to be said! We were in York for a Litfest event: ‘Writing the Maternal’, a reading and discussion group featuring Liz Berry, Jessie Greengrass and Rachel Bower. It was a lovely event, complete with the visual aid of Jessie’s baby, Poppy, who entertained us with her refusal to take the event seriously. All three writers have addressed the issue of giving birth, and the impact of that on their writing. I have Liz Berry’s signed pamphlet ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, an astounding, powerhouse of a pamphlet. Liz read my favourite poem from the pamphlet, ‘Horse Heart’. It’s one of those ‘goosebump’ poems. You can access the poem here: https://www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk/liz-b/I bought, and got signed, Rachel Bower’s collection ‘Moon Milk’, which I look forward to reading soon. It was a lovely event, a little oasis of poetry in a manic week.

On Friday, mania reached a new height. I took my car for its first MOT on Thursday, but as I was in York on Thursday afternoon, I arranged to collect it on Friday morning. Unfortunately, the difficulty of communicating with the garage while I was out drinking wine and enjoying poetry meant I was late authorising the work that needed doing: a new front tyre. So it was Friday morning before I authorised them to replace the tyre. They promised to have my car back with me by the end of play on Friday. I got the phonecall at 4.00 p.m. to say the tyre they’d ordered hadn’t arrived, so it would be Saturday morning before I could collect my car. I was due to visit my friend Joan on Friday evening. We’ve been meeting up most months since we met on holiday in Italy in 1995: Friday was my turn to go to hers in Crumpsall. I rang and asked if she could come up to Saddleworth instead, so at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday we were driving down the very narrow lane from my house to go out to eat. Unfortunately, a car was driving up said very narrow lane at the same time and Joan had to reverse for some way to find a suitable passing place. Long story short, she burnt the clutch out in the effort, so we were stuck on a stranger’s drive with a car that wasn’t going anywhere. I used my AA membership to get help: help came in the shape of Chris, who sorted us out. He towed the car to a garage in Bury, Joan and I walked back up to my house at the top of the lane, we had a take-away and Joan stayed over.

On Saturday it was Poets & Players at the Whitworth. Bill took me to collect my car from its MOT hospital at 8.00 a.m. then drove on to take Joan home. I took my car to the tramstop where I met Hilary and we caught the tram to Manchester. We called at the Whitworth café for an impromptu breakfast before a workshop with Mark Pajak. Well, how good was that? We looked at the set-up and punchlines of jokes and applied those to poetry. I’ve never been to a poetry workshop before where the first job was to tell and analyse jokes. By the end of the workshop I had written a poem about hair, that I think might find space in the PhD collection. After lunch in the café, it was the Poets&Players event in the South Gallery. Rachael Gladwin was the ‘player’ this time. Rachael is a harpist and singer, so that was a wonderfully calming aspect of the event. Contrast that with Amy McCauley, our first poet. Amy is nothing if not entertaining. A poet and performer, she always comes up with something different. Yesterday she addressed Brexit in her own inimitable way: it involved Union Jack bunting and a good deal of political rhetoric. It was brilliant. This on the day of the big ‘People’s Vote’ march in London. I’m not going to get political; suffice to say if I hadn’t been at Poets&Players, I would have been in London. Manchester sent several coaches of supporters to the event. Amy’s performance was a form of support. Phoebe Power and Jacob Polley also read; I need to go back to read Jack Selfall over again after hearing Jacob’s hypnotising reading yesterday. As usual, this was a brilliant event with wonderful music and engaging poetry. The next event is on April 27th, featuring Mona Arshi, Will Harris, Degna Stone and Maryam Hessavi. These poets will be presenting their poems to our commission ‘Reimagining the City’; with music by Paula Darwish and Serpil Kılıç. It promises to be a good afternoon. Perhaps I’ll see you there? More details here:https://poetsandplayers.co

And as if all this wasn’t enough, I’ve been finalising the administration of the Poets&Players competition, printing off entries to send to Kei Miller on Monday. I met with my colleague at P&P, Viv Finney, to collect the postal entries and tomorrow afternoon they’ll be speeding towards Kei and the judging process. If you entered, thank you so much for your support, and good luck with your entry. The celebration event is on May 18that the Whitworth, details also on our website.

So, I’m going to give you the final two stanzas of the poem I took to discuss with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday. It remembers that sad time when my only brother died of appendicitis when I was fourteen, he was seventeen. It is actually formatted with lots of line indents to give a sense of panic, but as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting.  Sorry! I’m so comfortable with the changes in it I sent it straight back to Jean Sprackland when I’d edited it. I have some lovely friends, and they’ve been instrumental in returning me to my default state of optimism this week. Above and beyond the call, Hilary has promised to read my thesis again now I’ve altered it; and this despite a city break in Prague starting tomorrow. She’s taking it to read on the plane if I get it to her today. Thank you Hilary, and thank you all.

Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard (final section)

[…]

that sense of what the fuck
knowing God isn’t
they clung together
dumbstruck              heart shattered
for years
did they even shed tears?
I don’t remember tears
they never asked how we grieved
if we grieved
we got by together
facedafter this together

how often did she wish it was one of her
ten-a-penny girls
not her boy in the ground
not her only boy      lonely in his earthy bed
not her prince                       so strong
so beautiful      so young
so dead

Rachel Davies
March 2019

 

 

Frau Frankenstein and the Midwich Cuckoo

I’ve been working on the thesis. Again. I feel like a grotesque Frau Frankenstein, reassembling in a different order the parts of a body I took apart myself. Or a Hammer House plastic surgeon, promising a client I’ll make it beautiful—mwah ha ha ha—when actually, I’ve put way too much collagen in its lips, lifted its face until the skin’s taut and the eyes can barely blink; and the breast implants don’t match, one an ‘A’ cup, the other ‘Double D’! Alright, over the top, but you get the drift.

I think what I’m saying is: you can work on a piece of writing until you feel as if you’ve worked the life out of it, one redraft too far. That’s how I’m feeling about the thesis. I feel as if it isn’t my writing any more, that I’m working on it for someone else. It leers at me from the MacBook screen and from the surface of my desk, it’s in my head all the time so that I wake up in the morning, or ride the tram into Manchester, or prepare dinner with yet another idea for an edit forcing itself to the front of my consciousness. It’s like a modern day torture. I just want it to be over, but I’ll be back at my desk working on it again today, because that’s what my days are at the moment. I feel like a mother neglecting her child if I do anything else. Except this child is a Midwich Cuckoo, a child that’s mine but not mine. And, like a Midwich Cuckoo, it enjoys a special brand of vindictive.

Deep breath, and…relax! I think I need a holiday. I can see one just over the horizon that is the end of May. But even then I’ll have to be reading to prepare for the final assessment. I think by my birthday in July it might be over, for good or ill. Either way I don’t care any more, it’ll be over.

So, what have I done this week to make me feel like this? Well obviously, a lot of editing of the thesis. I’ve been working to my support team’s advice, and that is the problem and the solution in total. They gave me good advice; but I’ve had to modify the advice. I found it hard to make my subheadings the names of my focus poets, because where would the theoretical stuff go? With which poet’s section? Because the theory is necessary before I apply the theory to the analyses, isn’t it? So I’ve subbed the theory under its own heading, and now there seems to be a deal of theory before you get to the engaging stuff in the analyses of the poets’ work. I feel as if I should put in an illustration or a cartoon to break up the flow of text: alright, I’m joking! But I want to engage my assessors early on in the reading and I don’t feel as if it does that at the moment. But is that because I’ve read it through so many times there are no surprises for me any more? You see, heartily sick of it! And this is how I keep beating myself up.

Thankfully, although it’s hard to believe, thesis redrafting isn’t all I’ve done this week. It’s been an engaging week of poetry too. Thank goodness for the restorative nature of poetry. The closing date for the Poets&Players annual competition was Wednesday at midnight. I managed to keep the spreadsheet up to date this year by updating it in bed every night with the entries that arrived in the inbox that day. The last three days of the competition is always a bit manic as people beat the deadline. I took a day off the thesis on Sunday to print off entries, because the numbers were mounting up. It took me all day, with a break for lunch. Within an hour, the inbox was filling up again.

On Monday I heard back from Jean Sprackland about the poems I sent her. Jean is always spot on with advice and I find work on the creative aspect of the PhD an uplifting balm. Two poems she was less happy with I’d used in the thesis as examples of aspects of the theory. So on Tuesday, I took another look and decided one of them I could eliminate altogether. I deleted it from the collection, and rubbed it out of the thesis as if it had never been a thing. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t entirely happy with it myself. The second one I was less sure about getting rid of. 1) I quite like it; 2) it illustrates a particular aspect of the theory that no other of my poems could do. I decided to retain that one. She also suggested ‘Alternative Mothers’ as a title for the collection, as she feels, and I agree with her, that this sequence is at the heart—actually and metaphorically—of the whole piece. I’m happy with that. So I spent a lovely hour looking for a picture of a three-toed sloth to illustrate the cover. I found a photograph of one, hanging upside down in a tree, doing things my ‘alternative mother’ sloth does; and the good news is, it carried permission for general use, so no copyright issues. I wish all my days could be as rewarding as this one, working on the creative aspect: after all, I’m a poet, not an academic—oh, not even a little bit an academic!

Wednesday I was back to working on the critical thesis. I’d printed off the latest redraft to read through for error, cut and paste failures, flow of text. I read it on paper, edited it on screen. It took all day. As I was reading, I was making a list of jobs I still need to do to it before I send it off to the team at the beginning of April—although I’ve revised my own deadline: I’ll be sending it at the end of March. The beginning of April is becoming a full diary and it’ll be good to have the thesis out of the mix. One job on the list is to check for ‘topic sentences’, a phrase I came across in my research into ‘accessible academic writing’. A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph that sets the reader up to know what’s coming. Another, huge and vitally important job, is to check footnotes now that I’ve moved the text around. That’s going to be a biggy.

On Thursday evening, Hilary and I went to see Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester. She does a (nearly) one woman show called ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Bras’, about notable northern women who’ve been lost to history. Bras feature quite creatively in the show: they double as hats, nuns’ wimples, handbags; I don’t recall that they ever played themselves, except when they were hanging on the washing line. She has help from a video installation, with a wonderful actor, Joanna Holden, doing a half-decent impression of Hylda Baker; and Kate and Joanna form a Manchester group: ‘Oasister’. Brilliant. If you visit the website: https://www.hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/talks-poetry/kate-fox-news-where-theres-muck-theres-bras/you can watch the videos yourself. It was a lovely evening: fun, informative, entertaining; and with some good poetry too. If it tours a town near you, do go and see it, even if you’re not a ‘poetry person’ you’ll love it, I’m sure. Kate calls herself a ‘stand-up poet’ and that sums her up nicely.

I also heard from Ben Gaunt about the recording of my poem ‘Tawny Owl Lulllaby’, and his wonderful music that inspired it. He sent me the completed recordings. I think you can download a copy of each piece here. Let me know if it works. If not, I’ll try something else.

https://wetransfer.com/downloads/4cd20f59757b92e01e31524f27c3012a20190313091356/ac3126594d678a3dc5b865980f4a26b820190313091356/a58a97?utm_campaign=WT_email_tracking&utm_content=general&utm_medium=download_button&utm_source=notify_recipient_email&fbclid=IwAR05d2lfyh783rLhBuc8r8E308Ivwy9H95TaA6P8zn6p8tlfP4uJSI6cvKY

Saturday, back to the thesis, carrying out the ‘topic sentence’ job. I think I’ve got it covered. But I’ve read it through so many times, I feel as if I’m not really reading any more, just looking at little anonymous black words on white paper. I worked on it all morning, ticking jobs off the ‘to do’ list. By lunchtime my head was screaming to make it stop, so I printed off some competition poems instead, to give the aching brain a rest—we’ve had some cracking entries: if you sent poems, thank you. And good luck. They’re nearly ready to send to Kei Miller; only about fifty more poems to print now, a couple of hour’s work. I contacted Viv Finney, the colleague at Poets&Players who deals with postal entries. We’re meeting for coffee in Manchester on Wednesday to put them all together, then I’ll be sending them all on their final journey, always a good feeling.

A poem: I’ll give you the poem Jean wasn’t so sure about. I’d be really grateful for your feedback; I’m only half convinced of its place. It’s a reflection on my relationship with my own mother. Quite an emotionally distant sort of mother, she had nine children–eight of them girls–and I suppose when it isn’t what you dream for yourself, it’s hard maintaining emotional closeness with such a large family. I was happy enough in my own world anyway. Most of the time.

The Bat And Not The Ball

what if being loveless was protection
a carapace a breastplate a firewall

not disappointment at a missing member
not a statement about lack of love at all

for years it hurt to see you couldn’t see me
like the worn out pushchair waiting in the hall

I sulked because you tried hard not to know me
while you were as strange to me as Senegal

and what if I didn’t notice all you wanted
was for once to be the bat and not the ball

and consider this    what if chopping onions
turns out more rewarding than a smile

Rachel Davies
2017

 

One step forward…

Oh, I’ve been standing up to that thesis bully this week, but I haven’t defeated it yet. It’s a cousin of the creature from the abyss. I’ve worked so hard on it, only to find I have 2500 words to lose; or not, depending on the mood my word-count is in. It gives me differing counts, even when I haven’t changed anything. But I think I do need to précis a bit. I’ve already moved some less relevant, but interesting, text into footnotes, but a 2500 word footnote may be taking the **** a bit, don’t you think?

On Sunday I put all the carved-up body parts of my thesis back together with their new sub-headings, making sure the text flowed now they were reordered. I printed off a copy—I find it much more comfortable, and accurate, to read from paper—and started the long process of reading it through to make sure it flowed as a piece. I worked for five hours and was about half way through the reading at the end of the day.

53648519_10217181530584688_3720349591472701440_n
Rosie Parker likes to help when I’m working

Monday was taken up with a hospital visit with Amie that lasted most of the day—we got there early for her appointment, the clinic was running an hour late and then we had to wait again for her blood tests. Good news at the end of it all though, so that’s OK. We got back to Oldham after 4.00 and I went to put in a couple of hours at the Black Ladd, working on the books. I didn’t get it finished, but I did the important bits, like the wages and invoices that needed paying. Bill came at 6.00 and we had our evening meal there so I didn’t have to cook when I got home. I determined to go back the next day to finish off.

On Tuesday I had to go to the pharmacy in Uppermill to pick up some outstanding pills on my latest prescription. These are the corticosteroid, Prednisolone, I need for the Polymyalgia Rheumatica that returned with a vengeance in the autumn. The meds control the inflammation and its accompanying muscle pain and debilitating stiffness. When I called to fulfil the prescription after my latest doctor check-up I was given some, but not all: they didn’t have them in stock. When I called on Tuesday, they still didn’t have them in stock. The suppliers are rationing pharmacies to one box a day—that’s about a week’s worth of the drug in my case. My prescription was asking for six boxes. The pharmacist was apologetic: it’s all down to Brexit. Drug companies are stockpiling in case we run out post-Brexit. Now, I know Polymyalgia isn’t life-threatening, but it is ‘quality-of-life threatening’. Friends I know who have life-threatening conditions like asthma, epilepsy, diabetes are also having difficulties getting the meds they need. How can this be right? How can we keep honouring a dishonourable referendum in order to break the country and put people’s lives at risk. This is madness on a national scale. I despair for my country. Don’t get me started!

I’ll get back to the safer ground of PhD, thesis, poetry. When I got back from Uppermill I started work. I finished reading and editing the reorganised thesis to make sure it made sense. I was done by lunchtime. After lunch I went back to the Black Ladd to finish the books. I hadn’t got them finished last week, so I was determined to catch up this week. I worked until about 4.30, all done. So that’s one job I can strike of my list.

Wednesday I gave the thesis a rest: thinking time!
I worked instead on the online entries for the Poets&Players competition: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/The closing date is this Wednesday, 13thMarch at midnight, so if you were thinking of sending me some work, you still have time. I’ve been processing the entries into my spreadsheet in bed at the end of each day, but I need to be by the printer to print them off, code them and add them to the pile. It was the printing I did on Wednesday. But it’s a job that’s never done. You get it up to date and then some more come in. I’m not complaining, I love it that so many people enter our competition. But I do wish people would read the rules, and believe we mean to adhere to them: a piece of good advice for anyone entering a competition. It took me most of Wednesday to bring them up to date. And since then I have lots more to print off.

On Thursday I went into Manchester with Hilary for the third People’s Poetry Lecture, inaugurated by Carol Ann Duffy during her Laureateship. This one was delivered by Andrew McMillan and the subject was the poetry of Thom Gunn. I think Andrew is best placed to write the biography of this great poet, who has been largely ignored by the British establishment. He did the unforgivable and relocated to California after his Cambridge University days, where he was a contemporary of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Andrew has been to visit his home in California, met his life partner, seen the archive of his letters and papers. I look forward to the biography, which I’m convinced he should write. The lecture was wonderful and it reminded me how much I like Thom Gunn’s poetry. I want to go back and read him all over again now; when the thesis has been put to rest. It was good to see so many poetry friends there too; although the purpose of these lectures is that they are pitched at poets and non-poets alike. They are interesting and accessible, so when the new series starts in the Autumn—and I’ll keep you posted—why not come along? You might find you love poetry as much as I do.

I was back at my desk on Saturday, working on the thesis again. When I read it through earlier in the week, I realised I had an imbalance between my two featured poets, Pascale Petit and Selima Hill. I knew when I was first analysing Selima’s work I had more than I’d included: I had concentrated on the section about her use of the fetish and needed to see where she fits into the mask/mirror argument. So I went back to that original document, and of course there was lots in that to fulfil the brief. So I spent a happy day cutting and pasting work into the thesis, and editing it to make sure it fitted its space. I’m still not sure about it. I need to read it through again, edit, redraft, delete if necessary. But that’s what had put the word count 2500 words above my 20000 word limit. Funny, twenty thousand words seemed like a mountain to climb when I started; now I’m talking about cutting it down to size. Ho hum.

The other good news from this week is that I’ve been shortlisted in a rather nice poetry competition myself. I can’t say too much about it yet, but it involves a very young poem I wrote for Liz Berry’s workshop in Birmingham in February. It was a last-minute send. There’s still a long way to go, but watch this space.

A poem: I paid the balance on my hotel room in St. Ives. I’m going to Kim Moore’s poetry week again in April. Although last year we packed our bags in wintry Manchester and travelled to warm spring in St. Ives, so the clothes I packed were excessive. I had to buy tee-shirts. Last year they also changed the chef, who wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was. I wasn’t feeling too well while I was there, a noro-virus before I went that I wasn’t entirely over. So I wasn’t ready for the poached egg that decorated every vegetarian meal. My favourite was ‘ouefs meurette’, a swimmy concoction of vegetable bourguignon—with the inevitable poached egg. It still makes me queasy to think of it. By Wednesday I was asking for just a bowl of chips for my evening meal.  I wrote this poem on the train on the way home, turned it into an alternative mother in the redraft. It’s tongue-in-cheek; poetry is allowed to exaggerate! This all sounds as if I had a bad week, I didn’t, I was poorly. It was a wonderful week and I’m really looking forward to going again  in April. The hotel is basic, but comfortable, my room has a sea view. I love it; I wrote this when I was in a bad place, when food was low on my list of needs!

Alternative Mother #16

 Fawlty Towers

First up
your stairs are steep, your beds hard,
your pipes noisy, your showers cold,
your central heating thermostat so out of control
the clothes I packed in Manchester are sweat blankets.

And while we’re at it
your chef can’t cook.
Your porridge lumps could be amputated fingers,
your soup’s cold, your carrots so undercooked
they carry poignant memories of the garden.

And how could you even think it was a good idea
to have him sit half-poached eggs and mushrooms
on soggy toast in a pond of bourguignon sauce,
call it ouefs meurette
hoping I won’t notice it’s really
this morning’s left-over vegetarian breakfast
with gravy?

You’re clueless.
You tell people he’s got a Michelin Star
but you and I both know how he found it
on the greasy floor in Kwikfit.

Rachel Davies
April 2018

 

Stalker!

The thesis follows me like a stalker. It has been in my brain wherever I go, whatever I’m doing. I dream thesis, eat thesis, walk, talk, sleep thesis. The thesis is there, around every corner, waiting at the top of the stairs, lying in the bottom of cooking pots, mixed in with laundry I take out of the tumble dryer.

My task at the moment is to reorganise the thesis under sub-headings to make it easier for examiners to negotiate the terrain and tune into the arguments. Sunday I did the deed: I carved it up into body parts of thesis, saved each separate limb, organ and section in a separate document. After that act of vandalism, I had no idea what to do with it: what order will I stitch it back together? The analyses of the work of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit are, in my opinion, the most interesting and engaging sections; but I can’t lead with them to grab the examiners’ attention without first putting in place the theories underpinning those analyses. This single dilemma has invaded my sleep:  I dreamed I murdered my thesis, but I got off on a defence of self-defence.

On Sunday, I filled the RD9 form for the meeting last week; then worked on the creative section, ignoring the need to reorganise the critical section altogether. I updated the contents of the creative section in line with poems I’ve added recently; took a last look at poems I’ve redrafted in line with Jean Sprackland’s advice, highlighted the new and redrafted poems in the collection to make it easier for her to find them and sent it off to her again for comment. Is that section at least ready to submit? To be honest, this all seemed like an easy option to get me in the groove, a particular example of procrastination. It was easier to work on that than to address the big issues that were haunting me.

On Monday I had a day away from my study. I worked on the books at my daughter’s restaurant all morning, then in the afternoon we went to Peterborough to meet my son, Richard and a friend, Maria. It was midnight when we got home. I had a lovely day; but the thesis was in the back of my mind all day, that problem of sub-headings, like a kind of intellectual ear-worm. What if I…

I woke at 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday with the problem still pecking my brain—I use ‘problem’ here in the creative sense. I felt I was set a problem to solve, like a huge, creative puzzle. I had some wonderful ideas while I was asleep; but unfortunately I didn’t write them down so when I woke up I couldn’t remember what they were.

But if it’s hard starting something, I reasoned, just start it and see where it takes you. I went for another soft option: I worked on the introduction section, fine tuning it. It took me a whole morning’s work. By the end of it I wondered if it was any better than it had been before I started. And still I hadn’t addressed the real issue, the reorganisation of the text under relevant sub-headings.

I stopped work after lunch; called it ‘thinking time’, as if I haven’t had a brainful of that this week. Wednesday, I was diverted by life again. I did some more work on the introduction, sent it to Hilary for feedback to see if it was more focused than before. In the afternoon Bill and I went into Manchester for Bill’s delayed birthday treat. We ate at Mr Cooper’s in the Midland Hotel, then went to the Opera House for ‘Motown the Musical’. It was good: energetic and entertaining. Particular favourites were the actors playing Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. It was like revisiting the carefree days of my youth. But all the time the thesis was chewing away, stalking me. After the performance, I had Motown ear-worms to add to the annoying thesis ones. My brain is mashed!

It was Saturday before I had chance to work on it again. I decided to grasp the nettle and go for it. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to it/him/her. So I took each separate body part and worked it under sub-headings, starting with the theoretical bits. This required some editing to make it make sense without the body parts that used to surround it, so it was an intense morning’s work. I worked for five hours, with one short tea break. So far I have a ‘Mirror, mask and fetish’ section and a ‘The sonnet and Carol Ann Duffy’ section. I haven’t put them together in any kind of order yet, but I’ve made a start. I’m on my way. That bullying stalker is still there, around the next corner, but she’s leaving me alone for now.

So there you have it. If you’re doing a PhD you’ll have weeks like this. Weeks where the work seems too big, too aggressive, too damned cruel. You’ll wonder why you ever thought a PhD was an attractive idea. But you won’t give in because you’re not a quitter, and you’re so close to the end. I’ll be at it again later today, knocking that problem into shape. I won’t let it beat me.

A poem: this is one of my alternative mothers. I have written this sequence about women—and men—I know, women from history, women from literature; even places I’ve lived anthropomorphised into women. It’s been great fun to write them. This one was loosely inspired by the ‘sex for luncheon vouchers’ scandal of the late seventies. I took the idea of joyful sex work and played with it. I imagined having a mother who gets by on her natural assets; who doesn’t need to work because she has someone to pay her way. She just has to be available on demand. How embarrassing would it be to be a teenaged daughter under those circumstances?

 

 Alternative Mother #6

Cynthia

 There are days she doesn’t even leave her bed
except to got to the bathroom.

Last week she binge-watched all eleven series
of Vampire Diaries until she could taste blood.
She looked at me like I was a roast beef dinner
cooked rare.

If she does make it downstairs
she lounges in her D&G leopard-skin onesie
in the Barker and Stonehouse leather recliner
paid for by the sugar daddy. She’s never worked,

thinks she’s Kim Kardashian, the world comes to her.
And the world wouldn’t want to offend her:
she wears a grudge like a body-con.

I don’t remember her ever actually using
the Bugatti touch-sense kettle or the electric Aga
in the kitchen. We mostly eat Domino’s,
McDonalds, take-out from The Great Wall.
She flirts outrageously with the Deliveroo man
who pretends he can’t speak English.

My friends never visit.                    I don’t invite them.

Rachel Davies
2018

A PhD sandwich

My week started and ended with poetry; in between was PhD and life. A poetry, PhD and life sandwich!

We stayed in the Britannia, the worst hotel in Birmingham, last weekend. On Sunday morning I flooded the wet-room. Who would build a wet-room on the third floor and NOT angle the floor toward the drain? And anyway, the drain wasn’t working. As I showered, the wet-room slowly filled with water. By the time I finished we had the start of an indoor swimming pool. When I opened the door to leave the wet-room the water over-flowed the doorstep and seeped into the passageway outside. As long as the door was closed, the water was contained inside; when the door was open the water escaped over the step. Problem was, the door didn’t close from outside, it didn’t catch, so the door was permanently ajar when it wasn’t locked from inside. I couldn’t stay locked in the bathroom all day, could I? So I used my initiative: I put down towels to soak up the overflow. When we went out for breakfast, we reported it to Reception, who didn’t seem at all fazed by it, so it probably isn’t the first time it’s happened. I guess it was repaired when we got back to the hotel in the evening; but we didn’t use it again just in case. When I got home, Expedia asked me for a review of the hotel. I gave them one, an honest one; oh yes I did! If you’re ever in Birmingham, this is one hotel to avoid.

After breakfast we were back at the Old Rep Theatre for the Verve festival Sunday events. For us, it started with a workshop run by Vahni Capildeo. I was well outside my comfort zone in this workshop. It addressed ‘eco-poetry, geography and place’. For more than three years I’ve been writing poetry of relationship, my mother-daughter poems for PhD; so eco-poetry was coming from a different space. We read eco-poems and discussed the techniques the poets had used. Vahni had given us a sheet of tracing paper to overlay the poems and copy anything that struck us as important: odd words, phrases, words that would make shapes—leaves or waterdrops etc. Then we were asked to think of an event involving weather or place and write our own poem. I wrote about the Beast from the East covering our house last March, blinding the windows, cutting us off from the world. I placed my tracing paper over the first draft, and, serendipity, some of the words I’d traced fitted into my own poem in the place of words I’d first used. My very first eco-poem had some positive feedback from course members and from Vahni; I haven’t looked at it since, but I think it may be worth redrafting.

After the workshop we went to look round the shops in the Bullring for an hour, had lunch in John Lewis. At four o’clock we were back in the Old Rep for another workshop, this time with Liz Berry: her workshop was about ‘spells, charms and incantations’. It was somewhere in the roof of the theatre, up a continual staircase to the stars. We were exhausted by the time we got there. Liz Berry is one of the nicest people in poetry, so gentle and thoughtful. We read poems again, discussed how a poem is often a kind of spell, wrote our own charm-like poems. It always surprises me in poetry workshops how you can write poems you didn’t even know you had in you. I wrote a poem that will fit into my PhD collection, I think. I even know where it will fit. Amazing. The last task Liz gave us was to pick a shell, one of those curly whelk shells, from a bag of shells she’d brought with her. She gave us a small slip of paper to write a spell for ourselves, roll it up tight and put it inside the shell to carry with us. I won’t tell you what I wrote: it might be like a wish and not come true if I share it. It surprised me to find it in my handbag in the week, and re-read the spell on it. I’d forgotten all about it so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. Poetry is indeed magic.

At six o’clock we went to poetry readings by Moniza Alvi, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Alison Brackenbury, all very different in style and presentation. Moniza Alvi is very gentle in style, almost deferential. Her poetry is powerful though. Jacob is self-assured, a confident performer, funny and entertaining. Alison Brackenbury is just wonderful. She is one of those performers who remembers every word of her work; and although she had the poems in front of her while she read, she never looked at them, she made eye-contact with the audience throughout. That is a skill you see rarely. Her poetry is gentle and sensitive. It was a good last event.

We went to a Chinese restaurant for our evening meal; but there was some kind of delayed New Year celebration I think, because the restaurant closed at about eight o’clock and all the young waiters were heading for the clubs. We arrived at the restaurant just in time to order a main meal only. It was delicious, but at eight o’clock we were out on the street again. I was dragging my laptop bag around with me all weekend because I didn’t trust leaving it at the Britannia; so we were limited as to where we could go. Back to the hotel seemed like our only option, although it felt too early; we didn’t want to spend any more time there than we had to. We decided to pick up a bottle of wine on the way back to the hotel and drink it from the only vessels available to us: the coffee mugs in the hotel room. We’re nothing if not classy.

The next morning we were glad to pack up and leave. We had breakfast in a Pret at New Street Station and caught the train to Manchester at 10.30 a.m. We were in Manchester by midday, home before 1.00 p.m. My sons were visiting for the day so I went straight round to Amie’s when I got home and we all went out for lunch together. How lovely it is to spend time with family, especially when you don’t get together as often as you’d like. Mike stayed overnight and went back to his real life the next day. We had lunch again, at Amie’s restaurant, before he went home. I stayed on to do the books I’d missed doing on Monday.

Wednesday was the day I met my PhD support team. I had to be at All Saints Campus for 12.00 midday. I drove to the tram stop in Oldham only to find that trams were suspended from Oldham to Rochdale ‘due to a police incident’. It transpired that a young woman had been hit by a tram in Oldham town centre. I drove on to Hollinwood, beyond the site of the incident, thinking I’d park and ride from there; but everyone else had had the same idea, and there weren’t any parking spaces left. So I drove into Manchester. I parked in a multi-storey car park in Charles Street, which is within walking distance of All Saints. I had to park on the top floor: how annoying is it when large 4WD cars take up a space and a half? How much more annoying is it when it happens four or five times. I was thoroughly stressed by the time I’d parked, not at all in a mental state to conduct a PhD meeting. I had to sit in All Saints Park for five minutes to calm down before I met Antony and Angelica; who, incidentally, had also been delayed by the knock on effect of the tram incident in Oldham. It was a positive meeting but I’ve come away with more work to do.

On Wednesday I also received a sneak preview of the Owl Lullaby recordings from Ben. I can’t post them here yet because they’re only temporary; they’ll be posted on Spotify eventually and I’ll provide a link then. But it was good to hear them: the saxophone’s voice is very different with the application of the pedals, sort of eerie and gothic. My poem sounded good, although I don’t like listening to my own voice.

The week ended with Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery yesterday. I went to a workshop run by  Daljit Nagra in the morning. We looked at the prose poem; and at rhythm in poetry. We did some scansion. He pointed out there is no wrong way to scan a poem: it depends on your own reading of it. He said the only people who are wrong about scansion are the ones who think there’s only one right way to do it. We worked with the same poem presented on the page in several different forms, and this did make a difference to the way we stressed syllables when we read. Dialect also affects stress: I read ‘pre-war’ as two equally stressed syllables; some people read it with the stress only on the first syllable: PRE-war.

After lunch in the Whitworth café it was the afternoon readings. I introduced Blind Monk and Daljit Nagra in the first half. Blind Monk are a jazz trio specialising in the music of Thelonious Monk: tenor sax, bass and drums, a lovely mellow sound. In my introduction for Daljit, I said that his Ramayana was my favourite of his four collections; so he read from it, even though he wasn’t planning to. How kind is that? It was good to hear it read in several character voices. I first heard Daljit read from it before it was even a book, it was still in manuscript form. He read in Ilkley when he was festival poet there, and he had an Indian dancer on stage with him, interpreting his poetry in dance. It was a special event. After the break, Viv introduced Lavinia Greenlaw, who read poems about her father’s dementia. She is a lovely reader, clear and confident. What a lovely afternoon we had in the south gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park in the early spring sunshine. I saw lots of poetry friends too; always a good thing. The next event is on March 23rd, with Amy McCauley, Phoebe Power and Jacob Polley, with the harpist Rachel Gladwin.providing the music. Mark Pajak will be running a morning workshop, and I believe there are still one or two places left, so visit our website to book a place: https://poetsandplayers.co

I don’t have a poem this week. I haven’t had time to redraft anything I wrote at the various workshops I’ve attended. Next week, I promise; but right now I have to go and knock on with the PhD work. Time is pressing.

Oh, oh, oh what a lovely week…

February continues to impress. I’m having  a ball.

On Sunday I caught the train to Stafford to meet my best friend from grammar school. We kept in touch for a few years after we left school, but lost contact when life got in the way. We found each other again a dozen or so years ago through Friends Reunited—is that still even a thing?—and we’ve been in touch ever since. I took Pauline a signed copy of Some Mothers Do… Her husband, Rob, took photos of the hand-over:

P1010021M

P1010026M
Photos courtesy of Rob Boler

On Monday, Bill and I were on the train again, to Leeds for the recording of my Tawny Owl Lullaby and Ben Gaunt’s music which inspired it. We had lunch at Bill’s Restaurant (obviously!) then decided to walk to the Leeds Art Gallery to see their Leonardo exhibition. It was a lovely afternoon, the kind of day that heralds spring; but when we got to the Gallery, it was closed on Mondays, which was a disappointment as it was the only day we were here. I don’t know if it is the cuts of austerity politics that caused it to be closed, but I’m guessing that won’t have helped. So we found ourselves in Leeds for the afternoon with no plans. First alternative: coffee. Second alternative: when we left the coffee shop I spotted a T K Maxx just up the road. I’m a trollop for TKM, so we went for a browse; and I found two lovely coffee mugs with a hand-painted three-toed sloth. One of my favourite ‘alternative mother’ poems is ‘Alternative Mother # 7: A Three Toed Sloth’, so of course, I had to buy those. There was a taxi rank just up the road from TKM so we got in a taxi and it took us to the Eiger recording studio. We were about half an hour early, but there was a picnic table outside and we sat in the lovely spring sunshine waiting for Ben to arrive.

Who knew music was such hard work? This is not a rhetorical question, the session was a complete eye-opener for me. We arrived in the studio at 4.15 and it was 7.45 before we left. Ben had hired saxophonist Lara Jones to play the music. She brought ‘Barry’, her baritone Saxophone—she called ‘him’ Bazza. He was beautiful: big and bold with a gorgeous mournful tone. He had flowers engraved down his bell. He was a lovely boy! She practised several times to warm up, and the effort required to make Bazza sing was evident. It takes a surprising amount of breath to play a four and a half minute piece on a baritone sax.

IMG_1517

While she was practising, Paul Baily, the sound engineer was preparing his equipment.

IMG_1518

To my untrained eye it was a complication of cables and boxes, culminating in a digital display on his laptop. But he knew where each cable led and what messages it carried. Lara had a pedal device for altering the tone of the sax: the only way she could hear the effect of the pedals was to wear headphones. So as she played, she heard the music through the headphones; heard the altered tones and delays the pedals produced. Of course, all we outside the headphones could hear was the real-time saxophone playing; but we could hear the difference when Paul give us a listen through a second set of headphones attached to his laptop. The difference between real-time and technologically altered sound was amazing. Lara and Ben are both perfectionists so they weren’t happy until they were happy. It took several ‘takes’ before they were both happy with their work. My reading of the poem took several attempts too. It’s surprising how many mistakes we make when we read/talk. These mistakes are the normal passage of speech, but in a recording they are a big deal. On one reading I almost made it to the end. The last line reads ‘a fading moon dims your hunting fest.’ I made it to the last word, which I read as ‘vest’: ‘a fading moon dims your hunting vest!’ That made us all laugh, the image of ‘death on silent wings’ in a hunting vest! Thankfully the next reading was word perfect and good to go. I can’t wait to hear the completed piece now. It will be published as a booklet: Ben’s music score on one side of the page, my poem on the other. The recording will be his music and my poem; then a combined piece mixed by another of Ben’s musician friends will record a darker version concentrating on the violence of the owl. It will be uploaded to Spotify eventually, and when it is, I’ll include a link here. Watch this space.

IMG_1556
L to R: Rachel Davies, Paul Baily, Lara Jones with Bazza, Ben Gaunt

I had to work at the Black Ladd, Amie’s pub/restaurant on Tuesday to make up for missing my normal day on Monday. It was 3.30 p.m. before the books were straight; I got home, had a quick cuppa then I was out again to meet Hilary Robinson and Natalie Burdett for a workshop session. We met in the Molino Lounge in Oldham, took a leisurely evening over tapas and tea to read and share poems and get feedback. I took some of the poems I wrote at the Poetry Business writing day at Manchester Art Gallery on the Saturday before. I wrote a poem inspired by Sutapa Biswas’s painting/collage ‘Housewives With Steak Knives’, a depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali. Oh my, it’s a dark piece, but compelling:

sutapabiswas-housewiveswithsteak-knives1985web
‘Housewives With Steak Knives’ (Sutapa Biswas, Manchester Art Gallery Feb. 2019)

At the gallery, I looked, was repelled by it, left it alone; but it kept calling me back, and I wrote a poem about it, which I quite like. On Tuesday I said I wished I could find space for it in my PhD collection: Kali is a mother goddess tasked with destroying evil in the world, so she sort-of fits the ‘mother’ brief. Hilary suggested I make her an ‘alternative mother’ so she can earn her place, so that’s what I was doing on Wednesday morning at 5.00 a.m.: turning my Kali poem into alternative mother #19 and awarding her PhD status. Every poem I add alters the list of contents, so I have to deal with that as well. I can’t give you my #19 Kali, because she’s already ‘out there’ earning her keep. On Thursday I was dog-sitting Amie’s two lovely Cockerpoos so I took my MacBook and decided to do some submissions. Kali is winging her way to a poetry competition as we speak.

On Friday, Hilary and I came to Birmingham for the Verve Poetry Festival. It’s a lovely festival, very diverse and inclusive. We were booked into the Britannia Hotel, very close to New Street Station. It’s probably not the worst hotel in the world, but let me tell you Fawlty Towers looks five star in comparison. I could be kind and call it ‘fading gentility’; but its gentility faded eons ago. It’s grubby, in need of a complete refurb;  actually it’s a bit of a doss-house. But we only sleep and shower here, it doesn’t involve food, thank heaven. I had a shower yesterday morning, and no complaints there: it was forceful, like being water cannoned awake! It pinned me to the bathroom wall. And it is very close to the Old Rep Theatre where the festival events are being staged. We’ll know better next year.

On Friday afternoon we walked to the Birmingham Art Gallery to view their Leonardo sketches. It was open, so that was a bonus; and we didn’t have to queue as we had in Manchester, so that was good too. Still my favourites were his anatomical drawings: detailed sketches of the human hand, and the human leg compared with the leg of a horse, all with his right-to-left, mirror-writing notes around the drawings. Amazing to think these were done 500 years ago, they look so modern and fresh.

On Friday evening we went to our first event of the Verve Festival: a reading by Jane Yeh, Amy Key and Carrie Etter, three very different poets. Jane Yeh read the wonderful lines ‘Poetic cockapoos will serenade us with their thoughts/While beseeching looks shoot out of their eyes like lasers’ from her poem ‘Utopia Villas’. This resonated with me after my session of doggy daycare on Thursday! I bought Jane Yeh’s new collection—including that line—Discipline (Manchester; Carcanet, 2019)—actually it isn’t out for a couple of weeks so this is newer than new. I also bought Carrie Etter’s collection The Weather in Normal (Bridgend; Seren, 2018). I would have liked to buy Amy’s collection too, but money adds up; so Hilary and I decided to share the load. She bought Amy’s book and not Carrie’s; we’ll swap when we’ve read them. Of course, all books were signed. The evening ended with YoniVerse’s Golden Tongue, ‘a poetry night focussed on amplifying the voices of South Asian women.’ Amrit Kaur Lohia, a powerhouse of a voice, sang Punjabi and English folk. There was some performance poetry, some page poetry, a good variety of styles and some excellent work. And samosas. There were samosas.

Yesterday was a full-on day of poetry. I went to a workshop in the morning, led by writer Bernadine Evaristo. Bernadine is mostly a poetic novelist: she writes ‘verse novels’, which intrigues me. I read her novel Mr Loverman some years ago and loved it. This workshop addressed building character and narrative in poems. It was really useful. I wrote a monologue and a descriptive piece, neither of which is a poem yet, but both of which might well become poems in future. After a sandwich we went to a lecture by Anthony Anaxagorou addressing the page/stage controversy in poetry; how poetry on the page is considered by the poetic establishment to be superior to performance poetry; and how some performance poets feel ‘excluded and marginalised’ by the canon. It’s an ongoing debate, involving not a little snobbery; and as Anthony said in his lecture, poetry is a broad church, there’s room in it for all styles. It was a good lecture: vibrant and engaging. After that we stayed for a reading hosted by Bernadine Evaristo of women poets of African origin. Four young poets read their work: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Theresa Lola, Rachel Long and Momtaza Mehri. They were all fine poets, with compelling track records in publications and prizes. I would be happy to see any/all of them hosted by Poets&Players in Manchester in future. I bought Victoria’s pamphlet Girl B (Akashic Books, 2017). Sorry kids, your inheritance is being frittered on poetry!

The last event on Saturday involved readings by Sumita Chakroborty, Vahni Capildeo and Sophie Collins, again all fine poets and engaging readers; but by now my brain was waving the white flag. We left the festival after that and went across the road for beer and Indian food. There’s only so much poetry a girl can take in one day.

So there you have it. A week packed with poetry; a week that’s helping to see February out on a high. More than half way through now, and another big week coming. I’ve got this: February, you’re being beaten into submission.

I’m posting an old poem this week. I wrote it after reading Jane Yeh’s first collection, Ninjas. Her work is surreal, darkly humorous, often with a distinct rhythm and music. I tried to replicate these aspects of her work in this poem about sheep. When I was head teacher and we took the children on educational visits, they, little townies that they were, always got excited to see the countryside. ‘Sheeps Mrs Davies’, they used to call out whenever they saw any four-legged animals in a field; so ‘sheeps’ have a special place in my heart. Here’s my rather lame attempt at a Jane Yeh pastiche:

 

A Dozen Facts You Probably Never Knew About Sheep

They have uneven legs to walk on hills.
They feed on grass and dream of fish and chips

They have their lambs in spring so they can…spring
then bleat them nursery rhymes, but not Bo Peep.

They roll themselves into giant rolls of hay
and let their lambs run riot while they can.

They sometimes dress up as cows and horses
so it’s only if they bleat you know they’re sheep.

When they’re dressing up to look like horses
they dream themselves a jump over the fence.

They let the sheepdog think that he’s the boss
but flock knows it’s Grandma Ewe who pulls the strings.

Insomnia’s not a problem for most sheep,
they just count humans hurdling a fence.

They don’t like tweed suits and knitted real wool jumpers
so they hide their coats on hooks along a fence.

They wait for hours for a car on Saddleworth Moor
then cross the road as soon as one comes by.

Sheep can kill a driver with one malevolent stare,
I’ve died a hundred deaths at the eyes of sheep.

Rachel Davies
Ages Ago!

Kung hei fat choi

This week has been what I mean to make of all my weeks post-PhD. It has been full of poetry and friends. It’s the kind of week that makes even February bearable.

On Tuesday it was Bill’s birthday. I bought tickets for Mowtown the Musical for his birthday, but the tickets are for later in the month, so he said he’d like to visit the Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the Manchester Art Gallery and have lunch in town. And that’s what we did. We had to queue, even on a Tuesday morning, for about half an hour; but we’ve waited 500 years to see them, so a few more minutes was neither here nor there. Eventually we made it to the gallery where the small exhibition was held. The drawings are from the Royal Collection and are shared around several cities in the UK to mark the 500thanniversary  of Leonardo’s death. Oh my word, they were wonderful. As an ex-nurse, I was particularly moved by his anatomical drawings, and his drawings of the foetus in utero.

IMG_1242

IMG_1244

I learned that Leonardo was left-handed and that he wrote the notes on his sketches from right to left in a backwards mirror-writing. He found it easier to pull, rather than push, the pen over the nap of the paper. How fascinating is that? A few years back I fractured the neck of my humerus the day before my Stanza group was due to be recorded for Ruth Padel’s ‘Poetry Workshop’ on Radio 4. Ruth started with some warm-up writing activities, but my right hand—my write hand—was out of action; so I did what Leonardo did, and wrote with my left hand in a backwards mirror-writing. It’s a skill I taught myself when I broke my right arm as a child; and it’s easier than you think. You should try it. Looking at the notes on the foetus, it’s clearly a skill he perfected. I find it interesting that he was making detailed drawings of the human anatomy, and yet human medicine in the Renaissance was still based on Galan’s anatomy of the chimpanzee. How often in history has genius been ignored or sidelined in the interest of the status quo, or flawed public opinion? Let’s face it, it still is: climate change, the economy post-Brexit, the adverse effects of austerity on poverty and social fabric.  In the Gallery shop afterwards, I found a book of Leonardo’s drawings, which I think will help with some poems. £9.99 for ten drawings, yes that’s a deal; except when I got to the till it had been reduced to £2.00. It’s a book they’ve recycled: it marks the sixtieth birthday of the Prince of Wales, so it’s about ten years old. But that’s OK: the drawings in it are more than 500 years old. It felt like my birthday as well as Bill’s.

IMG_1251

Wednesday was full of poetry. In the morning I was discharged from physiotherapy, where I’ve been having treatment on the damaged left shoulder. To be honest, the Prednisolone is probably as much to credit for the improvement as the physio, a fact the physiotherapist herself concedes, but she advised I keep up the exercises to lessen the chances of a repeat of the problem when I eventually reduce the Prednisolone again in future. That sounds like good advice. So, it was about 2.00 when I collected Hilary and we went to a meeting in Lydgate, an area of Saddleworth, to meet with the Lydgate Stitchers. They’d seen, in the Saddleworth Independent in the autumn, an article about the launch of Some Mothers Do…and were interested in doing a joint sew-in cum reading. They are doing some wonderful collaborative work, depicting the work of a local artist, Jill Harrison. This is her wonderful art work, depicting the development in history of Lydgate:

IMG_1252

and this is a detail of how the Stitchers are depicting it in fabric:

IMG_1261

We are planning to write a series of poems depicting the development of the fabric piece as metaphor for the development of the area. We’ll share the poems and the fabric work at a joint ‘launch’ in the summer/early autumn.

We went from Lydgate to Manchester for the second of Carol Ann Duffy’s series of ‘People’s Poetry Lectures’. The first was in the autumn and featured Gillian Clarke’s lecture on Dylan Thomas. On Tuesday it was Michael Symmons Roberts on W.H. Auden. It was a lovely evening: lots of poetry friends were there, including some I haven’t seen for a while. The lecture was really good too, delivered in Michael’s lovely soothing voice. It was interesting, intelligent and accessible. I was surprised to hear Michael say that Auden and Thomas were ‘near-contemporaries’, that there was only seven years difference in their age. I suppose I think of Auden as mostly a pre-war poet, and Thomas as a poet of the post-war era. Of course that’s rubbish, they both wrote in the forties and fifties. I love it when life forces me to reboot my assumptions. The next lecture in the series is on March 7th: Andrew McMillan  on Thom Gunn. I’m really looking forward to this one: http://www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events/the-peoples-poetry-lectures-andrew-mcmillan-on-thom-gunn

Get your tickets now, you won’t be disappointed.

And then yesterday. What a lovely, poetryful day I had yesterday! Hilary and I went to the Manchester Art Gallery for the Poetry Business Writing day, hosted by Peter Sansom. I love it when I go to a writing day worried that I don’t have a poem in me, and come home with the first drafts of about six. That was how it was yesterday. We worked from published poems as stimuli, as is usual for a Peter Sansom workshop. But he also sent us off round the gallery to use the art work as inspiration as well. Normally I find ekphrastic poetry—writing poetry from art work—difficult; but Peter gave us distinct tasks to do. We didn’t just sit in front of the art works and wait for a poem to arrive. In one task we were asked to just describe the artwork and see where it took us; on another to write fourteen-word poems from something happening in the artwork; and on another to find something that reminded us of an incident within our own families and write about that incident. It’s this last task that I’m going to include in my concluding poem today; about which, more later.

IMG_1280

After the workshop, Hilary and I went to Chinatown in Manchester to find somewhere to eat. We called in at a shop specialising in Chinese art. I bought a hanger for my car: red with tassels and three plastic pigs. This weekend is Chinese New Year, and this is the year of the pig. I’m a pig, so it is going to be my year. I hope this bodes well for the PhD. I heard from my Director of Studies that the team is ready to meet and discuss my latest draft of the thesis: we’re meeting next Wednesday, 20th. I’ve been told I don’t need to prepare anything for the meeting, just bring along a copy of the critical work; so I’m hoping for good news.

Anyway, we found a table in Yang Sing restaurant and had a lovely Chines New Year meal before going on to Chapter One Books for the launch of David Tait’s latest collection The AQI(Sheffield: Smith Doorstop, 2019). David read from the collection, and Clive McWilliam—both poets are alumni of the MMU Writing School—read from his pamphlet Rose Mining (London: Templar, 2017). It was a lovely, relaxing evening. I bought, and had signed, both books; and on the ‘for sale’ shelves in Chapter One I found a hard-backed copy, still cellophane wrapped, of an illustrated Vita Sackville West book based on the Queen Mary doll’s house. It was a steal at £12.00. I’ll never be rich: I keep buying poetry!

So that’s it. I don’t like February, the end of that long haul of winter; but it has to be said, this February is being pretty impressive so far. Long may it continue. I’ll finish with a poem from the workshop yesterday. It is a fiction based in the task Peter gave us to find a poem that reminded me of something familial. I found John Everett Milais’s painting ‘The Flood’ in one of the galleries. It depicts a baby girl in a crib, with a black cat, floating downstream on a high river. Actually, it’s the very painting that one of my portfolio poems was inspired by, the poem that gives the collection it’s title, Dreaming of Pulling Teeth.Yesterday it reminded me of the sister who arrived without warning, to me at least, when I was six. My mother made her up a crib in the drawer from the bottom of the wardrobe, and I suppose the wooden crib in the painting brought this to mind. I really didn’t like this squirming, red-faced bawling usurper one little bit. Yesterday, I wrote this. I reiterate: it IS fiction!

 

Usurper

What about this baby reminds me of you?
The hair’s all wrong—fair where yours was dark—
and the eyes are wrong—blue where yours were brown—
and the smile is wrong—you hadn’t time to smile
for red-faced crying.
The crib then, it’s the crib—
how I took yours to the banks of Whittlesey Wash
and launched you eastward to the sea.
And the cat of course—the cat was black.
I taught it tricks—to jump through a hoop,
to kick a ball, to sit on your face.
They said it was sibling jealousy.
It wasn’t.
I just never liked you.

Rachel Davies
February 2019.

 

 

 

 

February, off to a good start…

This week has been about 23 days long! Last Sunday I went to a late Christmas afternoon tea at Hilary’s sister Cath’s. It seems longer than a week ago. We had a great time: loads of food, a wide selection of teas, wine and gin. I don’t drink gin, but I tasted a fair few experimental cocktail mixes which the other guests invented. Cath’s dining table was groaning under the weight of food: there were cheese sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, pigs (and devils) in blankets, stuffing balls, pizzas, vegetarian paté, falafels, sherry trifle; Hilary’s Christmas cake is legendary. My vegan quiche was edible—I think it would have been better with eggs and real cheese, personally—but the vegan cheesecake was lovely: very creamy, rich and cheesecake-like. We all sang along to Mama Mia 2 after tea and blubbed like babies. I was on such a sugar rush when I got home, I couldn’t sleep.

Tuesday the snow arrived. We had to drive to Macclesfield for a funeral. Bill’s long-time friend, Jim, died from dementia earlier in January. They’d been friends since nursery school, seventy-five years ago, so Bill was particularly upset. We drove through several snow showers; it was wet and cold and miserable, as is fitting for such funerals. It was a sad day; but we met up with a friend we’d met on a holiday in Lesbos about ten years ago and who we’d lost touch with in recent years. It was a real surprise to see her: we’d forgotten she was also a friend of Jim’s wife, Audrey. We’ve agreed to keep in touch and meet up again soon. The drive home from the wake in Alderley Edge was through relentless snow. It took about twice as long to get home as it took to get to Macclesfield in the morning; it took more than half an hour to get to our village from Oldham, normally a ten-minute drive. I was relieved to park on our drive at last, even though we had to dig our way in. It should have been our January Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening, but I emailed members to cancel; we’ll defer our planned writing activities until the February meeting. We hunkered down in front of the fire instead.

Wednesday was the start of a wonderful week of poetry. Late last year I heard from a composer, Ben Gaunt, with whom I’ve collaborated on several pieces of work in the past. I first met Ben in 2008 when we were paired to work together on the Rosamund Prize, a collaborative event between Creative Writing MA students at MMU’s Writing School and the Royal Northern College of Music. We didn’t win the Rosamund Prize, but we’ve been in touch several times since then. We’ve had one piece, ‘Sounds of the Engine House’, inspired by the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, performed at the Bridgewater Hall. We had a collaborative concert at a church in Manchester a couple of Christmases ago when a group of my poet friends read poems to music from an ensemble of Ben’s musician friends. Then before Christmas Ben contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in another collaboration. He sent me a bassoon piece he’d written that he’d like me to write a poem to. He wanted a ‘daytime lullaby’, the piece was inspired by an owl. It is a haunting piece of music, sort of incremental steps, repeating with that lovely mournful bassoon sound. So on Wednesday I sat myself down, listened to the music again several times, tried to draw the pattern of it on paper. I researched owls, decided I wanted to write about the tawny owl, which is the one that has the famous owl hoot, at least the male does. The female responds with a ‘keewik’ sound. I found out that in some parts the tawny owl is known by the places it can be heard; as a result this became a repeating refrain in my poem: beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter. I researched ‘lullabies’ to make sure mine had the required elements. Obviously they are sleep inducers; but also a means of passing on cultural and social behaviours. All of this went into my poem. The musical piece is just over 4 minutes long, so my poem had to fit that time scale when it’s read aloud. I wrote it in three line stanzas (tercets) then decided it was better, more lullaby-like if I combined stanzas into sestets—six liners. The refrain comes between each stanza. I had three sestets in my poem; but when I read it aloud I realised I had used only about a minute and a half of the time. I decided it would work well if I made it a specular poem: a poem that is mirror-like, reflects itself backwards in the second half. So I tried it and, with minor modifications, it worked. I crafted the poem all day, editing, redrafting, changing a word here, a line-break there. I read it to Bill. He liked the poem but didn’t like the line ‘Unseen in your sleeping bag of leaves’: he felt ‘sleeping bag’ was too mundane; I thought about it and changed it to ‘eiderdown’, which I actually like better too. By the end of the day I had a poem I was happy with; no, I had a poem I was excited by. It fitted the music, it was read aloud in 3.5 minutes, a perfect fit for the music. I sent Ben a message to say I had a poem but I hung on to it until Friday morning, read it through several times to make sure I’d finished with it. I sent it to Hilary and she liked it too; she even liked ‘sleeping bag’. On Friday morning I sent it to Ben. I had a message back later to say he thought the poem was ‘magnificent’, that ‘it’s going to work perfectly’. Yay! I love it when things work out. We’re meeting in Leeds on February 11th, a week tomorrow, to record it in a proper recording studio. I’ll know more about the fate of the collaborative piece then. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, the first day of my least favourite month of the year, started with a trip to Oldham Royal Hospital for a dental consultation about the recurring root canal infection. Mr Boyd is a lovely man—I don’t routinely say that about dentists!—who has an interest in poetry. My appointment was at 9.15 so I expected to be out by 10.30. Silly, I know, but hope springs…I was called into the clinic at 9.30. Mr Boyd checked my teeth then sent me to the x-ray department for a full mouth scan. It was nearly 10.45 by the time I got back from there, then I had to wait to see him again about the result. He showed me the scan results, which revealed an area of chronic infection behind two neighbouring teeth. He talked about my options, the most appealing of which was to do nothing. He said whatever he did with that tooth would leave it in a weaker position than it’s in now: he actually said the tooth as it stands will probably outlive the patient, but if he does any work on it, he’ll weaken it. So he’s going to recommend to my dentist that we do nothing unless the infection gives rise to the need for antibiotics too frequently; then possibly to perform a root filling on the tooth next door, which might help. It was midday when I left the hospital.

At 5.30 I met Hilary in town. We met at Salvi’s, a small Italian restaurant on Exchange Square, where we had a lovely meal before going to the Manchester Writing Prize event at Chetham’s Library. What a splendid evening that was. We met up with lots of lovely poetry friends: the room was full of Manchester’s literati, including the poet laureate, whose original idea the Manchester Prize was. With prize money of £10,000 for each of the genres, this is one of the biggest writing prizes in the country; to be shortlisted is an event in itself. A friend of ours, Katie Hale from Cumbria, who we met through Kim Moore’s poetry courses, was on the poetry shortlist, so it was an exciting evening. Details of the shortlisted writers and their works—short stories and poetry—can be found here:https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2018-short-listed-poems.pdf and details of the winners of the fiction and poetry prizes, Gabriel Monteros and Molly Underwood respectively, can be found here: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition/news/story/?id=9405

It was a lovely, uplifting evening.

On Saturday I got down to some Poets&Players work. I processed the entries to our competition into my spreadsheet. Entries are beginning to come into my inbox at a steady rate, so if you like poetry, get writing and give me some work to do. You have until 13th March to get your entries in; and your poems will all be read by the wonderful Kei Miller. Details and competition rules are here: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/

I also brought my P&P evaluations up to date, processing the questionnaires for the January 19th event. I missed it, unfortunately, but from the positive evaluations I can tell it was another good one. If you missed it you can find our recording on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVJ7Uqgb9xk&list=PL426OGPKVF3OfAyncsynG0CNtMI7dtAus

So that’s it, another wonderful week filled with some sadness, some tooth angst, but mostly poetry and more poetry. Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate February, that dreary end to winter, the long dark nights and short dark days. But this year, I’m being positive, finding reasons to be cheerful. Reason to be cheerful #1, 2 and 3: POETRY, POETRY AND POETRY!

I’m going to leave you with the first stanza of my new poem, ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’. I won’t give you more than that because great things are expected of this piece of work so I’m saving it. But it is my latest poem and I love it, so you can have a taste. You might get the whole thing, including music, one day. I’ll keep it in mind.

 

Tawny Owl lullaby

The lantern moon has lit your feast
now sip the day, your sleeping draught.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east—
here ends your raptor’s midnight feast,
your croon of darkness, silent flight.
Yawn homeward to your morning roost
          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

 

Rachel Davies
February 2019

The Fens in Veganuary

People ask me, what will you do when the PhD is over? I’m guessing most people—not everyone, obviously, but most—do a PhD for career purposes: they want to teach in a university or move on to other research projects, change the world in some small but significant way. My motivation for PhD has been entirely selfish: this has been a personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it. I don’t need PhD, but I do want it; in the same way I wanted to climb Snowdon by the Pyg Track before I was fifty. I managed that as well, by the way; and Helvelyn before I was sixty. It’s what I do: set a challenge and work towards it. After PhD? I’ve no idea. Perhaps I’ll challenge myself to learn a new language, or learn upholstery, or take up lace-making or tie-dye or batik; perhaps I’ll redraft all these blog posts into a novel, a work of fiction. There will be something; what it is yet I know not, but it feels good to be contemplating life after PhD. I’m still waiting to hear from the support team to discuss the latest draft I sent them, and I’m hoping that no news is good news; at least I’m hoping it means time isn’t pressing. Just a few more months, the hurdles of final edits, binding and submitting the manuscript, the Viva Voce. Then freedom, the summit of the mountain to contemplate my next move. In the meantime I’ve been reading a book that Kim Moore wrote about in her blog last week. It’s Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood by Adriana Cavarero; translated by Paul A. Kottman (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). Kim made it sound so vital a read that I downloaded it to my Kindle straight away. She wasn’t wrong: it could have me rethinking parts of my thesis. Well, not rethinking exactly, I don’t have time for that; more embellishing. It is indeed a powerful work of feminist writing.

This week has been another little taste of life after PhD. Last weekend I was in Lincolnshire with family and friends. It was cold, but bright and crisp, exhilarating. We came home on Sunday via Lincoln. We searched for a dog-friendly restaurant for lunch; were just considering getting a take-away to eat on the lawns outside the castle when we found a tiny café about half-way up Steep Hill. It served vegan food and welcomed dogs. Lunch sorted. We left Lincoln mid-afternoon to drive home to the frozen north.

76747b24-4ba1-41a3-aafe-fdb16f6abfd6
Walking on Mablethorpe Beach, 19.01.19

In the week James Draper posted a review in ‘aAh!’ of the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends event that I contributed to on January 14th. ‘aAh!’ is MMU’s official arts and culture student mag. I think its title is probably an acronym for ‘Arts and Humanities’. It was a lovely review—a few spelling mistakes, but hey! Apologies to ‘The Glass Aisle’ and to ‘Riggwelter’ for instance; but the substance of the review is written at the event, based on the journalist listening without chance to clarify. Here is a link to the review: https://aah-magazine.co.uk/2019/carol-ann-duffy-friends-the-glass-isle/

img_5799-1024x683Carol Ann Duffy and Friends, 14.01.19; photo courtesy of aAh! magazine.

On Tuesday I woke at 3 a.m. There was snow on the roofs of the cottages opposite. Thanks to the polymyalgia medication, I couldn’t get back to sleep: I often lie in bed on a Pred high, wide awake and remembering that line from Macbeth: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!Macbeth shall sleep no more.’” Perhaps he was on Prednisolone as well, and Prednisolone hath murdered sleep. So, unfazed, I decided to use the time productively. I sent a selection of my ‘mother’ poems to Cinnamon Press’s pamphlet/collection competition. I sent to Fly on the Wall before Christmas; unfortunately I received a rejection in the New Year, but it was a very positive and uplifting rejection: Isabelle Kenyon, the editor, wrote ‘I very much enjoyed reading your work and it was a tough decision to turn your collection down… I encourage you to submit in future! I wish you all the best finding a suitable home for this great collection.’ I wish all rejections were so positive! So on Tuesday morning, at silly o’clock, I was in bed putting a collection of 25 poems together; I kissed them goodbye and pressed the ‘send’ button on them at 5.30 a.m.

At 8.00 I had an appointment for polymyalgia-related blood tests; so it was still dark when I went outside to scrape my car of frozen snow. I had intended to park at the garden centre and take the fifteen minute walk into Uppermill; but I thought perhaps a frozen canal path and my track record for staying upright might clash so I parked behind the museum like the coward I am. Bloods done, haircut done I went home and hunkered down in front of the fire and binge watched ‘The Long Song’. I read Andrea Levy’s wonderful novel some years ago, and the TV drama was a fine representation of the book I remembered. I loved the silent and crafty undermining of the slave owners by the slaves. But the cruelty, OMG; my colonial history makes me ashamed; and this is the history that made Britain ‘great’? This is the ‘control’ we want to ‘take back’? Well not in my name!

Wednesday I went into Uppermill again to meet up with Hilary for coffee and catch-up. I did walk in along the canal on Wednesday; it was freezing cold—minus 3*C, ice on the little brook behind the houses, but no ice on the canal; just lots of mallards with very cold bums. We discussed several readings we have coming up: including a twenty-five minute slot each at Writers in the Bath in Sheffield in June. We decided to split the timings, we’ll take ten minutes each, either side of the break. That way I can have ten minutes of ‘alternative mother’ poems, then ten minutes of other, more mixed work. Twenty-five minutes reading is a lot of voice! Hilary had booked our trains to Birmingham for the Verve Festival in February and for St. Ives for Kim Moore’s poetry week in April. We are two busy poets; long may it continue. Hilary is contemplating starting a PhD: I haven’t put her off then. I’ll be there to hold her hand when she needs it.

On Friday I met another friend, Joan; we ate at a lovely Mediterranean restaurant in Whitefield. The waiters kept us updated on Manchester United’s FA Cup match against Arsenal at the Emirates and we managed to catch the end of the match when we went back to Joan’s house for coffee. United won 1.3, Ole Gunnar’s eight-win run in charge. Go Utd, they look like a proper Reds team again!!

Later today I’m going to Hilary’s sister Cath’s for a late Christmas afternoon tea, a group of friends all bringing contributions. I committed to taking vegan food: I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian; but someone else there is vegan, so I promised a vegan cheesecake and a vegan quiche. On Saturday I spent the day cooking. The quiche is tofu based and I must say it looks really rather good:

img_1506
My vegan broccoli and pepper quiche

The cheesecake uses soaked cashew nuts and coconut oil; I’ve made mine lime flavoured. It ‘cooks’ in the freezer, comes out to thaw out a couple of hours before eating. It also looks good, although I have no photos. I did lick the bowl though; and it does taste remarkably like cheesecake. I’ll keep you posted. I also have to take some books for a book swap; and a ‘Secret Santa’ gift. It’s so secret even I don’t know what it is yet!

That’s it then; another week, another new experience. The poem I’m leaving you with this week is a poem I wrote last year about the fens where I grew up. It seems apposite to include it after spending a week in the Lincolnshire fens; although this is about the Cambridgeshire fens, south of the Wash. I wrote it as a place poem about the Fens; but it occurred to me that place could be ‘alternative mother’ as well as folk. So I redrafted it as ‘Alternative Mother #17’. I think it works, and it’s leading me to think I could include other places that have been significant in my life. Always good to have a poem to write!

Alternative Mother #17
The Fens

 If landscape has mountains, forests,
a river forcing its course to the sea
she is no landscape.

If her horizon is fourteen miles away
your eyes will see for fourteen miles
across her sea-drained bed.

If goddesses reach down to touch her soil
there is nothing between their fingers
and her fecundity.

Her sky though, look at her sky,
high and wide as heaven!
She celebrates all the literature of skies,
their cumulonimbus poetry,
their war and peace.

Rachel Davies
2018

A foretaste of life after PhD

On Monday I read with ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I arrived at the Stage Door as requested at 6.00 p.m. and, as Bill opened the door into some dark cellar, might have become Manchester’s own phantom of the opera, forever roaming the bowels of the theatre, if the security man upstairs on CCTV vigilance hadn’t noticed and called us up the windy stairs to the first floor. We met up with Mark Pajak and John Fennelly,  the house poets. Cue the first glass of wine. I also met Daisy and Lauren, the two other MMU poets who were reading in the first half of the evening. We had sound checks, then a full run-through, in which my voice sounded, to me, weak and nervous. Thankfully, a second sauvignon blanc helped calm me down. The audience began to fill up. Hilary Robinson, my dragon sister, arrived. It was Hilary’s birthday, and I gave her my birthday present, which included Jackie Kay’s collection, Bantam (Picador 2017). I took my seat on the sofa on stage while jazz musicians played the audience in. Imagine my surprise when Jackie Kay herself walked in and sat full centre in the front row, directly in front of the lectern. And imagine the nerves, knowing the Makar, the Poet Laureate of Scotland, would be among the few audience members with whom I could make eye contact during the reading, because the theatre lights almost completely blind you to the entire audience apart from a section of the front row. Anyway, Daisy and Lauren read beautifully, confidently, hardly a sign of the nerves I know they were both feeling. Then it was my turn. I walked to the lectern. The nerves were somewhat dissipated by the wine and I felt good. I think it helped not to be able see the audience really. I read a couple of poems, the audience laughed in the right places, I relaxed, read some more; I read the last one, ‘Rhona the Rat Girl’. Applause. End of first half. I joined Hilary and Bill. I told Hilary that Jackie Kay was in the audience and could sign her copy of Bantam,so we went off in search. I know Jackie from having the pleasure, twice, of introducing her to our Poets&Players audiences, and she remembered. She hugged Hilary happy birthday and signed her book. She said how much she had enjoyed my work, especially my ‘alternative mother’ poems, and would like to buy Some Mothers Do…She asked us both to sign a copy while she went to get her purse. Oh Yes. Jackie Kay has a signed copy of our book. Let me tell you, it feels pretty damn good when one of your poetry heroes appreciates your work. I received positive comments from other audience members too.

The second half of the event was given over to a performance of ‘The Glass Aisle’, a collaboration between the Welsh poet, Paul Henry and singer-songwriter Brian Briggs. I loved the mix of poetry reading, then hearing the poetry set to music, sung to guitars. The poetry was lilting, nostalgic; and doubly beautiful when it was sung, what a lovely way to present poetry. After the event Hilary, her husband David, Bill and I went to the bar to meet up with MMU Writing School friends for a wind down. It was nearly 11.00 p.m. when we got up to leave. Brian Briggs saw us leaving and ran over to say how much he’d enjoyed my poems too, and did we have a book he could buy? How nice is that? Well, we did, so, with the door to the bar held open for our exit we waited for him to find the £8.99 in his pocket. In the end we said ‘just give us what you have.’ I actually have no idea how much he paid: it included a fiver, a one pound coin and a lot of small change, bless him. A perfect ending to the evening.

Hilary had brought Fiona Benson’s collection Vertigo and Ghost (Jonathan Cape 2019) to the Exchange. She’d been bowled over by this Forward Prize shortlisted collection and brought it to lend to me. So, being too high on poetry and Prednisolone to sleep after the Exchange, I was reading it in bed at 3.00 a.m. on Tuesday. It is indeed a fantastic collection. Buy it. Read it. I couldn’t put it down, read it through in one go; and will re-read it before I give it back to its rightful owner. I’ll probably buy a copy too. Trust me, it takes poetry to a whole new plane: startling and brilliant.

The rest of the week passed in refreshing mundane ordinariness. The thesis is with my DoS and support team, so I can’t do anything more to it until I’ve met with them. On Wednesday my daughter rang. She’s had an ear infection this week, so she was feeling ropey. She asked if we’d go into Oldham to collect her contact lenses: she’d just had an email to say they were in. So off we went to Specsavers to collect said lenses. Having searched through four drawers and the entire Specsavers online catalogue, the assistant couldn’t find a record anywhere. So I rang Amie—thank goodness for the mobile phone—and we were in the wrong shop! Her contact lenses were in Vision Express! So we went for a coffee before going to the right store to collect them. I took them to her house in the afternoon. She had that glassy look that she used to have when she had tonsillitis as a child. We had a brew together then I left and she went back to bed. When I rang the next day she was feeling better, still with earache, but her temperature was coming down. She took the rest of the week off work.

On Friday we came away to the Lincolnshire fens. Amie had hired a wooden cabin in the woods near Woodall Spa. I always thought Woodall Spa was somewhere in the west midlands, but no, it’s just a mile up the road from where we’re staying in Lincs. Amie is feeling much better, still dosing regularly on antibiotics and paracetemol, but improving every day. Yesterday we went to Mablethorpe to give the Cockerpoos a run on the long, sandy beach there. The wind was cold, but it was bright and dry. Apparently there has been some significant snow in the North West, so we’ve dodged that. It’s been lovely in Lincs. Later today we are going to visit Lincoln on our way home. Lincoln is one of my favourite cities: I did my first degree, BEd (Hons), from Bishop Grossteste College there in the eighties. I wanted to include a couple of photos of me relaxing on our weekend away, but the wifi here is almost non-existent; I don’t think it’ll cope with photos. Next week, perhaps?

So, I know now what life will be like post-PhD. I feel relaxed and happy. The stress for now is on the back burner, until I hear from the team with a meeting date. I’m beginning to look into book binding, preparing for the hard copy that must be submitted alongside the electronic submission, with a copy for myself, obviously. I can’t do anything about it until the team agrees that the work is done; and that might not be yet. But I’m preparing. The end is nigh, as the famous evangelical sandwich board says.

A poem: I’m going to give you a poem I read on Monday, an alternative mother poem from the book, one that was popular on the night. I first-drafted this at a Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich a couple of years ago, and it’s one of my personal favourites. I love a three toed sloth, that total disregard for action. A bit like me post-PhD; perhaps I inherited the attitude after all.

 

Alternative Mother #7
A three-toed sloth

 see yourself as someone who relinquishes
digits to evolution then patents
what you save in your own slow show

see yourself as acrobat
so your ceiling rose is hearth rug
the laminate floor your roof

see yourself as worshipper of inertia
so downtime is your vocation
daydreaming your life’s career

see yourself as passive philosopher
examining the energy of predator
and arriving at the ergo of leaves

see yourself as someone who could be
a human sin but can’t even be arsed
to crack a smile at the irony of it.

 

Rachel Davies
2018