A great big poetry barmcake

This week ended as it began: with poetry. Poetry sprang up in the middle too. Oh, where would my life be without a poetry sandwich?

On Sunday I was still in Swindon with my ‘poetry twin’, Hilary Robinson. in the morning we went to writing workshops. Hilary had a workshop in the hotel with our poetry quiz team member, Zoe Brigley. They were looking at using letter-writing in poems. I walked over to the Richard Jeffries museum for a workshop exploring ‘play’, in the tent with the irrepressible Hilda Sheehan. Hilda is a one-off; she loves surrealism in poetry. On Sunday morning she had us making eye-contact with someone in the group and we had to move around the space without breaking eye contact with that one person. She had us dancing with someone, taking it in turns so you danced for a while then stopped in a pose while your partner danced for a while. It broke an Antarctica of ice. Next we stood in a circle; Hilda placed a random selection of items from the museum—not exhibits—on the floor in the middle. We were asked to choose an object from the collection and, without saying what the object was, we had to move like the object. I chose a hand whisk. The rest of the workshop was taken with the object becoming a persona in our writing. I called my whisk ‘Cynthia’. I wrote lines to describe Cynthia using surreal question prompts from Hilda; lastly I wrote a poem using some of the prompts and mixing it with facts about Cynthia, without ever mentioning that Cynthia was a whisk. That draft is still in my notebook, I haven’t done anything with it since I got home; but I might when I find myself at a loss…

After lunch on Sunday we all met in ‘The Tent Palace of the Delicious Air’ for a poetry reading by American poet Nuar Alsadir. Her poetry is challenging: she’s a neuroscientist in her day-job and she introduces the possibility of a fourth dimension in her work. She talks of ‘quantum entanglement’, the connection of everything to everything else in some meaningful way. She is fascinating to listen to; but it was very deep stuff for the end of a full-on weekend. After the reading, a bit of brain-ease, a different, less intense way of listening as Hilda interviewed her about her work. After a tea break there were readings by Elisabeth Bletsoe, whom I hadn’t heard of before but whose poetry was mesmerising. She writes about wild flowers and birds, plays on their Latin names, uses ancient facts about them. I didn’t completely understand all of her poetry but understanding isn’t necessary for poetry: her use of language is hypnotic. I could have listened to her all day. After Elisabeth, another wonderful reading, this time by Julia Copus. The Big Poetry Weekend is a small and intimate festival, but oh my, what huge poets they’d involved.

After our evening meal Hilary and I cracked open the Prosecco our team won in the poetry quiz. Zoe and Chaucer didn’t want any, so we did the polite thing and drank their share for them. The evening session, the last of the festival, saw the launch of Domestic Cherry 7. I have a poem in there, alongside Nuar Alsadir, Hilda Sheehan, Julia Webb, Sarah Leavesly; and Olivia Tuck, who is going to be a big name in the future of poetry: remember, you heard it here first. When I was finding out about Domestic Cherry, I discovered their blogspot: Barry and Mabel explaining it all. It has the stamp of Hilda’s surrealism all over it: http://domesticcherry.blogspot.com Anyway, back to Sunday’s launch. Several of the poets in the journal read at the event. I read my ‘Spooning’ poem that’s in the journal, and I read ‘Code’ which isn’t. It’s the first time I’ve read this one to an audience. Hilary read a couple of poems, even though she missed the deadline for inclusion in Domestic Cherry. It was a whacky and wonderful launch: and Hilda wore her best frock.

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Reading at the launch of Domestic Cherry 7, Sunday October 6th 2019

On Monday morning we packed up, checked out, had breakfast and went back to the Richard Jeffries museum for the feedback meeting and the long goodbye. It was lovely and sad in equal measure to be at the meeting giving input into the evaluation, which in turn will feed into the planning for next year. We will be back, Swindon. You are a ‘must return’.

On Tuesday I did the job at the Black Ladd, my daughter Amie’s restaurant, that I’d missed on Monday, so it was Wednesday before I could make a start on addressing the feedback on the ‘minor revisions’ that I received from my Director of Studies while I was away in Swindon. It looked on first glance like an amount of work, but in fact it wasn’t. As much as anything, it involved deleting irrelevances. So I tackled the feedback and then had the onerous task of checking footnotes, checking that publications mentioned in footnotes were referenced in the bibliography, checking that page numbers in the contents page matched the body of the work following the alterations. That all took me to a late lunchtime. I had some business to do with Amie in the afternoon, so I’ll be back at the revisions later today, checking secretarial bits one last time before I send it off to the examiners for, hopefully, a final read. There is a form to complete, obviously, which points the examiners to the changes without expecting them to reread the whole thing. So that’s today sorted. I hope it’s the last goodbye.

On Tuesday evening it was the double book launch of Rachel Mann’s debut collection of poetry, A Kingdom of Love (Manchester: Carcanet, 2019) and In the Bleak Midwinter: Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti (Canterbury Press, 2019), a collection of Rossetti’s poetry with commentary by Rachel Mann. I met Rachel when we were both enrolled for the MA in Creative Writing at MMU’s Writing School in 2007. Rachel completed her PhD last year, and A Kingdom of Love contains some of the poems she wrote for her PhD. Rachel is an Anglican priest, a Canon of the Church, and a fine poet; the launch was held in Manchester Cathedral.  Andrew Rudd, who replaced Rachel as Poet in Residence at the Cathedral a couple of years ago, introduced her to the audience: ‘Rachel Mann is so prolific she turns out about four books in the time it takes me to write one poem’. She read first from In the Bleak Midwinter; first an extract from Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ which I absolutely love, then she read the eponymous poem. Then the organist from her church accompanied one of her choristers in singing the poem as the carol we all know and love: my first carol service this year! Rachel read from her Carcanet collection next, a powerful and committed reading. Lastly she was interviewed by Michael Schmidt, editor of Carcanet Press: two great intellects meeting beneath the vaulted roof of Manchester Cathedral.

More poetry on Thursday evening: it was the first in the new series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal in Manchester: Sean Borodale lecturing on Sylvia Plath. Hilary and I met up with Jean Sprackland for a celebratory drink prior to the lecture: Jean was the supervisor of the creative element of my PhD and we raised a glass of Prosecco to celebrate my successful viva result. Carol Ann Duffy, whose brainchild the People’s Poetry Lectures series is, came over to say hello and to congratulate me on the PhD as well. Evenings don’t get better than this. Sean’s lecture was interesting too: a sustained argument on the importance of bees, honey, beekeeping in Plath’s work, which he links to Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father, who was an expert on the honey/bumble bee. We all know the importance of ‘Daddy’ in Plath’s work, but it was interesting to have this new affirmation pointed out. Sean’s own first collection, Bee Journal (London: Random House, 2012), was inspired in some measure by Plath; I bought a copy and he signed it for me.

On Saturday I drove to Nantwich for a writing workshop with Mark Pajak, part of the Nantwich Words and Music Festival. I was separated from my poetry twin for the day: Hilary had an appointment she couldn’t get out of. Last time we went, a couple of years ago, I got a parking ticket for overstaying my welcome in the Asda car park. This time I found a car park that welcomed me for ten hours so I was safe. The workshop had us asking the ‘what if…’ question, conjoining two separate ideas in one poem: what if paths could ebb and flow like the sea; what if the timbers of a sunken ship could grow again into trees, that kind of thing. It was interesting. I don’t think I have any poems from it; none that I’m proud of at least; but I have a good prompt to think about, to inspire some poetry in the future. At lunchtime there was an impromptu performance of blues music on the piano while we ate lunch. There was also another poetry quiz. How many poetry quizzes can two women win in one week? Yes, Hilary had completed the quiz online as a guinea pig for Helen Kay, who organised the event; I completed the quiz in my lunch hour in Nantwich yesterday. We both got a winning score of 17.5 points, although scored on different questions: I didn’t know Hilary had done the quiz. It’s uncanny: I think we really are The Poetry Twins. We won a bottle of champagne to share. I think we’ll manage that. In the afternoon there was an open mic session; several talented amateur writers read at the event. I read a couple of poems from my PhD collection, then regretted my choice because I read a couple of ‘downers’ and I wished I’d been more upbeat. Most of my poetry is upbeat after all.

So the week began and ended with poetry festivals and there was poetry in the middle, a king sized poetry barmcake. I’m going to leave you with a poem I wrote for the PhD. It takes a line from a Syliva Plath poem, so that seems apposite this week. The line ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ is from ‘Morning Song’, the poem she wrote on the birth of her daughter, Freda. You can find the Plath poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49008/morning-song-56d22ab4a0cee 

I took the first line of the poem to write a plea for the celebration of girl babies: in my family, boys were definitely favoured above girls, possibly because there was only one boy in a family of seven siblings. Here’s my poem, inspired by this first line:

 

How To Wind A Fat Gold Watch
After Sylvia Plath

Open yourself like a rose that welcomes the ladybird.
Open yourself like a rose that the ladybird will crawl into
then fold your petals around it like a womb.

Empty the lap of your life to make a beanbag soft seat
for a story. Share with her your own story,
the stories of your grandmothers.

Share with her those gifts your mother gave you,
teach her to pass down those gifts like heirlooms
to her daughters’ daughters.

Don’t look on her and see the years creeping like slugs
but see the pace and plot of her, how her story
is just beginning, how it needs a middle, an end.

Don’t look on her and see the tadpoles missing from your beck
but see her as the clear water of the beck trickling from you,
notice her laughing stream, her eddies, her rocks and banks,

their wildflowers and willows, their soaring larks.
Listen for the skylark’s aria. Notice her. Make sure
she notices you noticing her every day.

Rachel Davies
2017

And the winners are…

Well, what a week this has been, full cream even by my exacting standards. PhD, poetry and life: all packed into seven incredible days. Revisions, poetry, prosecco and wildlife—about which more later. Sunday and Tuesday I worked on the revisions, drafting, redrafting, editing, chip-chip-chip. By Wednesday I had the four paragraphs—which had mysteriously grown into five pages—completed; at least, if I’d had more time, I’d probably have kept them a bit longer, let them marinade before I sent them off to the team; but time had run out for the week and I wanted them gone before I came away, so I emailed my DoS, attached the revisions and hit ‘send’ before I could change my mind. That’s it, gone. I had some useful feedback from him on Friday, which I’ll deal with next week and then: final submission. I won’t celebrate until it’s done, though.

On Thursday I was up early to pack a weekend case for Swindon. I’m here with Hilary Robinson for the Big Poetry Weekend. As I said, up early to pack: last minute as usual. At about 7.15 I heard a knock at the front door. When I opened it, a neighbour was there with something swaddled in a blanket. This neighbour has an old and infirm pug, and my initial thought was that said pug was in the blanket; but no. She pulled back the blanket to reveal the face of a beautiful tawny owl, big eyes blinking and semi-alert. It had flown into her window, she said and was just lying on the ground, not moving—although clearly not dead. She’d wrapped it in the blanket and come out to see if the neighbours could help, because she had to go to work. Having looked around Old Tame hamlet, she’d noticed my light on and knocked my door. Could I get help for the owl? Well, if I’m honest, that was the last thing I needed: I was still packing and I had to meet up with Hilary later in the morning; but she—the neighbour—was stressed and upset, so I put aside that uncharitable thought and that’s how I came to be carrying a swaddled tawny owl upstairs to our lounge. It weighed nothing, moved not at all. We put it into the pet carrier, partly for its own safety from our cats, partly because I didn’t want to have to try catching it if it did manage to rouse itself and start flying around. We needn’t have bothered about the cats: on smelling raptor in the house they were straight upstairs, hiding away in the study. I rang RSPB: a recorded message lectured me for five minutes on how not to behave if I found a nestling or fledgling bird. At last, the information I’d rung for: if you find an injured bird, contact your local vet. That’s it? Well, I know from recent experience with the cats that the local vet isn’t available until 8.00 a.m. and I still had packing to finish, so I left the bird in the carrier, in the lounge with Bill, and went upstairs and got the job done. Just before 8.00 I went downstairs to see the patient. It had woken up and was trying to stretch its wings in the confines of the pet carrier. When I went up close to the wire front to get a closer look, the five stilettos of its left foot lashed out and grabbed the wire front. Its eyes were pure threat. It was obviously stressed and frightened, so I took the carrier out to the patio to see if it could fly. Avoiding the deadly talons, I carefully unhooked the wire front from the pet carrier and the owl escaped at the first opportunity, flew over the beech hedge and down the lane: beautiful in flight, death on silent wings. I hope it survives its trauma. I finished packing, brought my luggage downstairs, had a cursory breakfast and left to collect Hilary. I couldn’t find my cats to say goodbye, though: they could still smell raptor and were keeping well away.

It took us about five hours with two coffee stops to get to Swindon: a seven mile section of the car park that is the M6 at Stafford took forty minutes to negotiate. We arrived at the hotel at about five o’clock, unpacked and went in search of wine. We bumped into Hilda Sheehan, one of the organisers of the Big Poetry Weekend, and she took us across the dual carriageway to the Richard Jeffries Museum, where most of the weekend’s action would take place. We had wine and supper then settled into the marquee, Hilda’s ‘Tent Palace of the Delicious Air’, the space where it all happens. Thursday evening involved readings by Michelle Diaz and Jinny Fisher, then an open mic: Hilary and I each read a poem; I read ‘Pope Joan’.

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Hilary and I reading at the Big Poetry Weekend open-mic
(photo courtesy of Mark Farley)

Friday morning we had a leisurely breakfast: we’d bought instant porridge and a punnet of strawberries at M&S food on the way back to the hotel on Thursday. We thought we’d do breakfast in our room, which is so not geared for it. The porridge was OK, just add boiling water. But have you ever tried hulling strawberries with a teaspoon? Exactly, but needs must.  After breakfast we walked to the bar for a proper coffee and spent an hour reading the papers. We walked over to the Richard Jeffries museum in time for lunch and the afternoon events. Kathy Gee was reading from her pamphlet Checkout (V press, 2019) and had asked Hilary and me if we’d read two of the customers’ poems. Kathy read the 100 word narrations by the check-out girl, Nona, and four of us assumed the personae of customers. It’s a good pamphlet, and fun to hear the parts read in different voices. Another open mic followed. Hilary and I read, another ‘alternative mother’: the three toed sloth from me. Next, a reading by American poet Jennifer Militello, whom I’d not heard of before but whose poetry was so powerful I had to buy the book and get it signed. Her reading was followed by a question and answer session about her work, which was interesting. After the evening meal there were readings by Richard Scott—absolutely wonderful—and Roy McFarlane—also wonderful. I’d be happy to get either to Poets & Players; I’ll certainly be putting their names forward. We bought a bottle of Chablis from M&S Food and shared it in our room at the hotel. Hilary had brought a bottle opener away with her but not a corkscrew, unfortunately (why didn’t we think to check before we bought it?) so she went off to sweet-talk the bar man into opening it for us.

On Saturday morning we settled for breakfast in the hotel, then we had a workshop with the wonderful Fiona Benson. The workshop addressed voice in poems, writing in the persona and voice of someone else. We wrote a poetic dialogue with someone we knew; we wore masks and wrote in the persona of the mask. It was a really good workshop and I think I’ve got a couple of poems to work on. After lunch, Fiona did a reading from her wonderful collection Vertigo and Ghost (London: Faber 2019). A question and answer session followed, hosted by the ebullient Carrie Etter.
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Carrie Etter (R) in conversation with Fiona Benson
The Big Poetry Weekend 2019

Vertigo and Ghost is shortlisted for the 2019 Forward Prize for best collection, and it’s up there among my favourite collections of all time. Hilary and I both have copies at home and regretted not bringing them for signing; so we bought another copy each and did get them signed. Sometimes, you just have to…

In the afternoon there was a talk by two publishers about their work, a question & answer session chaired by the festival director, Carrie Etter. The poets/publishers Claire Crowther, deputy editor of Long Poem Magazine, and Sarah Leavesley of V press gave us insights into submissions and how to get your work noticed by publishing houses. That was interesting. Empathy was the buzzword: be empathetic with the publisher and consider the workload, for instance in reading 300 poems of at least 75 lines each to make decisions about the eighteen that are going to make it into the mag. Read and attend to the submission guidelines which are available on publishers websites. I can sympathise with this as administrator of the online entries for the P&P competition each year. After a brew break, they both read their own work. Clare Crowther introduced us to a new (to us, it’s actually mediaeval French) poetry form, the fatras, which involves eleven lines with a couplet of the first and last lines to begin the poem. Now I want to give it a go.

We went for a walk to nearby Coate lake before dinner, to clear our heads of poetry. It’s a full-on weekend and you reach saturation. After the evening meal it was the celebration event for the Battered Moons poetry competition, which was judged this year by the American-based poet Zoe Brigley. The commended and winning poems were read and then Zoe gave us a reading of her own work. This was followed by a poetry quiz, devised and hosted by Carrie Etter. Hilary and I were joined by Zoe Brigley and Chaucer Cameron to make up the team we called ‘Carrie Etter’s Groupies’. The quiz was in three sections: easier, harder and impossible, twenty-five questions altogether. Zoe had the American questions more or less covered and between us we managed 21.5 points to win first prize by half a point: yay! We won a bottle of Prosecco and a copy each of Jericho Brown’s collection The Tradition (London: Picador 2019). I look forward to reading this one. We danced to disco lights and music and left for our hotel at about 10.30 while hardier poets were still dancing the night away. This is a wonderful poetry festival, it’ll be on our annual calendar of events from now on. Still two days to go, but I’ll save them for next week.

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Prizes, and the winning score
Poetry Quiz at the Big Poetry Weekend 2019

In the light of events this week, I just have to leave you with my ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’ poem. I wrote it for a commission from the composer Ben Gaunt earlier this year. It was set to music by Ben and recorded in Leeds in May. I hope our own tawny owl gets to sing his lullaby again following his ‘stunning’ night out.

Tawny Owl lullaby

A rising moon lit your hunting fest
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.

You ghost, your call foreshadows death
huhoo keewik keewik hoowoo,
your eerie song, your love duet.
Listen, the morning chorus sings.
The daylight blunts your hunting skill
so cloak your song in silent wings

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Close down your sights, hide claws in sheathes,
the world must woo you to your sleep
unseen in your eiderdown of leaves.
The night’s your sweet the day turns sour.
Silence your haunting love duet,
re-hone your blades for the hunting hour

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Re-hone your blades for the hunting hour,
silence your haunting love duet.
The night’s your sweet the day turns sour.
Unseen in your eiderdown of leaves
the world must woo you to your sleep.
Close down your sights, hide claws in sheathes

           beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Cloak yourself in your silent wings,
the daylight blunts your hunting skill—
listen, the morning chorus sings.
With your eerie song, your love duet
huhoo keewik keewik hoowoo
you ghost, your call foreshadows death

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Yawn homeward to your morning roost
your croon of darkness, silent flight—
day ends your raptor’s midnight feast.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east
so sip the day, your sleeping draught,
a fading moon dims your hunting fest

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Rachel Davies
2019

Putting Word to paper…

I’ve had to give myself another good talking to this week in order to find the motivation to start work on the revisions. I’ve been doing some reading and note-taking, but the thought of starting to first draft the revisions was daunting. I was beginning to obsess about it, knowing I had to do it, knowing the celebrations would be short lived if I didn’t get the job done; but unable to actually introduce Word to paper. I had an email from Antony, my Director of Studies that put it all in perspective, pointing out that it is only four paragraphs to add to the thesis. He included details of a book about the controversies surrounding Freud’s ‘legacy’, which was available electronically from MMU library, so I accessed that midweek and read the relevant chapters. The job must have been going through my head while I slept, because I woke up a couple of times this week thinking about it, chewing over useful phrases, which I jotted down when I was near a notebook. Yesterday I made a start, and I’ve written two of the four paragraphs—which could actually cover three of the tasks, I think. So that’s at least half way through; I can do this. The motivation’s back, I’ll be at my desk again later today crafting the next two (one?). Hopefully I’ll have it to send to my DoS by midweek for feedback. Then, of course, I’ll need to edit the list of contents, because all the pages will have shunted along with the redrafts! I’ll be happy to see the final-final back of it, and submit it to the University. I don’t need hard copy of this redraft, apparently, just electronic submission; but I’ll get a bound copy for my own use, to adorn my bookshelves and to act as a strong deterrent if I’m ever tempted to do anything as rash as this again!

Poetry has had its place in the week. On Monday I heard back from Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Well, Dam!: the latest Beautiful Dragons project. She likes my ‘Pollarded Willows on Whittlesey Wash Road’ but confirmed that it’s two lines too long to fit the publishing spec of 38 lines max, including line breaks. I suspected that might be the case, so I ‘pollarded’ it by a couple of lines, made sure I liked it as it was, saved it as Mk4, and sent it back to her on Wednesday as promised. We’re planning a launch in Buxton in November, which takes longer to organise than you might think, involving so many poets. I’m easy for several of the dates mentioned, so I’ll look forward to that. There will be other launches around the country, some of which I might also get to; I’ll post details on here when I have them.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza in Stalybridge Buffet Bar. We met to read and discuss the Forward Prize nominees this month, prior to the awards in October. I bought a copy of The Forward Book of Poetry 2020, which has a selection of ‘best collections’ poems along with the shortlisted ‘best poems’ and the commended poems, so we had a lot to keep us going. Unfortunately we were on the red list again this month, there only being three members there; but I received three apologies as well, so we don’t need resuscitation just yet. The poetry was wonderful and discussion of the poems was interesting. We’d already read and discussed two of the collections in previous meetings, before they were shortlisted for Forward recognition: Fiona Benson’s wonderful Vertigo and Ghost and Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance. Other poems I enjoyed were Isabel Galleymore’s ‘The Starfish’—‘fizzy skinned, pentamerously legged’: fantastic language. It describes a starfish devouring a mussel; but it’s also, I feel, a metaphor for human relationships. It’s from her shortlisted ‘Best First Collection’, Significant Other.I also read a Rebecca Goss poem ‘Rachel’ for obvious reasons: ‘I spent the day being Rachel…’ it starts, and goes on to outline a day in which she adopts a persona: ‘I decided that as Rachel, I wasn’t interested in birds after all’. I thought, what a wonderful way to spend a day, being someone else; and what a good workshop activity, to write as someone else, adopting their mannerisms and ways of using language. I might give it a go. When the revisions are done.

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The set of Macbeth, showing the couldron, at the start of the play.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for a performance of Macbeth. The eponymous antihero was played by a woman in a same-sex marriage. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The witches doubled as servants in the Macbeth household, bringing an element of threat and menace in the way they often stared down Lady Macbeth. As the weird sisters, they were slightly manic and extremely sado-sexual. The feast scene, with the ghost of Banquo, was the highlight of the performance for me. It was a masked ball with guests fancy-dressed as animals etc, except for Queen Macbeth, who wore an ill-fitting, strappy gown that made her look rather anorexic, I felt. But it was red, signifying blood, a constant trope throughout the play: red was everywhere. Banquo came dressed as a lion, removed his lion’s head to reveal himself to Macbeth, who totally flipped; no-one else could see Banquo, bloodied from his assassination earlier in the day. Somehow, and I really don’t know how they managed to stage it except it might have been magic, Banquo’s costume contained someone else, and the party continued. Then Banquo raised his ghostly, ghastly blood-spattered self from the centre of the table, sending cakes, jellies, macaroons scattering in all directions. It was wonderfully well done, theatre at its best. There was a school group in the audience and they were rapt: this was a modern, contemporary interpretation of a great play. But if I’m brutally honest, I really don’t see how having a lesbian Macbeth added anything to the play. It didn’t make any great feminist statement, it didn’t celebrate LBGTQ issues in any way; it was an added layer without exploring its layers. It was a good night out, though. Macbeth’s always an interesting date!

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The same performance space at the end of the play.

On Friday I met up with Hilary and Polly to discuss next year’s Line Break week. We met for lunch in Bundobust in Manchester Piccadilly. We had a lovely lunch, but didn’t get far with planning, because Polly isn’t sure she’ll be able to join us again this year. Family commitments around Manchester and in the North East are keeping her particularly busy currently and she doesn’t know if the situation will be any less pressing before we go. We agreed to hold off planning until the end of January, when she might have a better idea. I hope she can make it: we had a good week last year, but it wasn’t the same without her. Hilary and I went back to the Exchange Square tram-stop via T K Maxx, and spent money we didn’t plan to spend. I bought Pierre Cardin leggings for £3.99! Whichever way you look at it, that’s got to be a bargain!

I’ll be writing next week from Swindon. Hilary and I are off to the Big Poetry Weekend, the Swindon festival, on Thursday. So I’ll have lots to tell you next week; and with any luck I’ll have sent my revisions to Antony for feedback by then, and not have them to worry about while I’m away. I’ve had a poem accepted for Domestic Cherry 7, a journal edited by the festival organisers, and I’ve been asked to read it at the launch in Swindon on Sunday evening. ‘Spooning’ is the poem, and it describes mother’s method of crowd control when dad wasn’t there to maintain order at mealtimes. Here’s the poem, with thanks to Mabel Watson and the crazy team at Domestic Cherry and the Big Poetry Weekend. I can’t wait, bring it on!

 

Spooning

What I remember of the spoon is
how it was her crowd control at mealtimes
how she held it upright in her hand,
its handle to the table-top, how it tapped
a rhythm like a slow drum

how when we laughed we knew the spoon
would greet us with a firm handshake,
a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself
on the back of our hands, how we tried
not to laugh but it was a contagion

how you tried to drown your laughter
in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves
across your face like freckles and we laughed,
laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now…

Rachel Davies

2016

 

 

Burning and raving…

When I first retired, about fifteen years ago, the ‘escalating cost’ of caring for an aging population was often a news item, as it continues to be today. That ‘aging population’ was—is—often depicted in the main-stream media sitting in the kind of upright armchairs deployed in care homes, its arthritic fingers tapping out some unheard rhythm on a wooden chair arm, a cup of weak, milky tea and rich tea biscuits on a plate close by. If we saw its feet, they were almost certainly encased in plaid slippers with Velcro fasteners or with pompoms on the instep. I was horrified to hear one professional carer of this ‘elderly population’ declaim that ‘the old dears like a rich tea biscuit with their cuppa.’ I wanted to shake her, wake her up to the reality of these ‘old dears’, men and women who had done extraordinary things in their lives. Her ‘old dears’ were the generation who had survived the second world war; some of them had actively contributed to the war effort, as front-line soldiers, RAF and Navy personnel, ARP wardens, nurses, firefighters home guard, land army, munitions workers etc. etc.; but also as special agents, parachuted into enemy territory to aid and support troops and resistance groups, to work with occupied populations. They had, in short, done extraordinary things; and their depiction as decrepit hardly-people disturbed and angered me; perhaps more so because I was hurtling towards the age of the pompom slipper myself. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/ ‘old age should burn and rave at close of day’,  wrote Dylan Thomas in his famous and most beautiful villanelle. Where in the main-stream media is ‘old age’ burning and raving? Where, the recognition that the ‘elderly population’ is capable of extraordinary things? I will not go gentle, and I have been reminded several times in the last couple of weeks of the extraordinary thing I have done in achieving PhD at 72 years of age, for no other reason than it was my personal mountain, out there to be climbed. Well, I reached the summit, I planted my flag. Congratulations from friends and family have continued to arrive this week: this tee shirt from my son Michael, for instance:

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celebratory tee shirt…and badges

An accompanying note that said he tells everyone he meets about what I’ve achieved. The badges are from my lovely friend Hilary: ‘wear them with pride,’ her note said. Another friend, Joan, gave me three individual bottles of wine with instructions to share with no-one: they are all mine, to celebrate my achievement; on the other hand, her son joked that I’m a ‘posey showoff’ for having so many letters after my name.

My point is that, although I am proud of my achievement, of course I am, I’m not the only one of an ‘elderly population’ that has done an extraordinary thing. There are others out there who do extraordinary things every day, and I would love to hear from/about them. I’m thinking that this is where my blog will go next: in the celebration of we extraordinary oldies who refuse to ‘go gentle into that good night,’ who continue to ‘rave at close of day’. If you are one of these, or you know someone who is, I’d love to hear from you/them. Let’s celebrate raving age, not silence it with milky tea and rich tea biscuits.

I went to London yesterday to see another extraordinary oldie: Sir Ian McKellen turned 80 in May this year. ‘On Stage’ is his birthday celebration tour.

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Sir Ian McKellen, on a poster outside the theatre and on the cover of the
performance brochure

He has taken it to all countries of the UK, performed in umpteen towns, cities, theatres and venues from the Orkney Islands to Jersey. McKellen shows us how to ‘rave at close of day’. Last year I saw him give the most powerful portrayal of King Lear I have seen in my life. His ‘Lear’ will be my yardstick for measuring performances of the role in the future. Yesterday he was ‘On Stage’, talking about his stellar acting career. It was a one-man show: just McKellen reminiscing, reliving some of his landmark roles, telling us about his personal journey through life and career. It was wonderful. There were parts I was unsure of: he read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, declaimed it as an actor performing his lines. I didn’t like it, too ‘actorly’, too dramatic, the performance detracted from the words in my opinion. Also, my favourite speech from Macbeth, the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, he performed as boredom, ennui, which I agree is a valid performance decision, but I didn’t like it: the slow delivery detracted from the wonderful poetry: again, just my opinion. But the show as a whole was wonderful; and McKellen was extraordinary in his octogenarian energy and humour, in his ability to hold an audience and entertain the crowd for almost three hours. At the end of the performance he came into the theatre foyer with a collection bucket to raise more funds for the theatre-and-arts-related charities the show supports. What a man, what a human being.

This wasn’t my only theatre visit this week, either. On Tuesday evening, Bill and I went to Home in Manchester for a performance of Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road, her memoir of the time she was searching for her birth parents, searching for her own sense of her true identity. Jackie was adopted at birth, raised by her adoptive parents, communist party members in Glasgow. Of course, their political affiliation is irrelevant in this context; but my favourite part of the book, which I read about four years ago, is the part where she eventually meets her birth father, Jonathan, in his native Nigeria, and he is a born-again Christian. His first action on meeting her is to ask her, this communist-raised woman, to pray with him to atone for the sin of being born out of wedlock: he views her as a sin to be forgiven. Trust me, it is written with humour; and the play opened with this scene. Stefan Adegbola, playing Jonathan, really emphasised the humour of the scene, playing Jonathan as an evangelical faith-healer character while Sasha Frost—Jackie Kay—stood by wide-eyed and disbelieving. I loved the book, which showcases the humour of Jackie Kay’s writing wonderfully well; the play is very loyal to the book and it includes some poems from The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe Books, 1991), her multi-voiced poetry collection addressing her experience of adoption. Unfortunately the play’s run at Home finished yesterday, but if you find it being performed somewhere else, I urge you to see it: you won’t be disappointed.

Other events this week: I spent a morning in the MMU library on Wednesday checking out some of my earlier reading to support the ‘minor revisions’ to the thesis. I forgot to take my reading glasses so I had to work with the varifocals, which are not ideal for reading books: too much head movement needed to focus the print. And I don’t like working in the library anyway, too many distractions: I’m a reader who needs to empty the space around me when I’m working, lose myself in the job in hand. But it was necessary and I persevered. I got the reading done that I needed to do, and feel a step closer to completing the revisions and putting the thesis behind me once and for all.

I also ordered the Forward prize anthology this week: The Forward Book of Poetry 2020 (London: Bookmark, 2019). We’re discussing the poetry shortlisted for this year’s prize at our next Stanza meeting, on Tuesday coming. I picked up my copy of the anthology from Waterstones on Friday and read it on the train to London yesterday. There are some stonking good poems in there, the best of contemporary poetry. We have already read a couple of the collections at Stanza: Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost (Cape Poetry) and Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverence (Penned in the Margins). So I know we are in for a treat on Tuesday at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge Station. Can’t wait.

So that’s it really, my week, full as ever. Rosie went back to the vet for a post-op check on Tuesday: she’s doing well, they want to see her again next week when her meds are all complete. Oh deep joy, I have to take her and Jimbo on the same day, he for his annual health check and vaccinations. How much am I looking forward to getting two cats into pet carriers on the same morning. Wish me luck: I might need hawking gloves to lift Jimbo, he’s not as light or malleable as Rosie. I promised the vet I’d do my best, and none of us can do more, nor should do less, than that.

A poem to finish, as usual: this is the first sonnet in my sonnet crown, a sequence of seven sonnets. It’s focused on an old woman, a member of the ‘aging population’ of milky tea drinkers. It was inspired by a photograph by Bruce Gilden in the Manchester Art Gallery’s ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition, 2016-7. The grotesque photo of this old woman was juxtaposed with photographs of mini-skirted girls from the sixties, enjoying the sexual and social freedoms of the era: a time when this old woman would herself have been young, mini-skirted and sexually attractive. Everyone has a history, after all. We ignore this to our detriment as a society. My sonnet crown recognises and celebrates this.

from Mirror Images

I’m looking in the mirror
at a lardy old woman; but here
in the photo, Hyde Park ’68, I was thin
as an elf, confident, full of myself:
Quant make-up, leather jacket,
geometric hair, first generation mini-skirt,
burned bra.
See the photo of me then
and my mirror self now: blood-flushed
face a street map of veins,
wattle chin, whiskers like thorns, tits
slapping my knees.
I get that life’s a burlesque but
                    you landed the role of grotesque.

 Rachel Davies
2017

Reading, revising, spooning. And pets.

…and there was me, thinking I’d have to find a different tag-line for my blog, now I have achieved the PhD. But I find myself still in the thick of it with the ‘minor revisions’, so the ‘PhD, Poetry and Life’ tag-line stays for a couple of months at least. This week has been all about coming down from the viva-high and approaching the revisions. And poetry, of course.

Saturday and Sunday I was totally out of it, I could hardly stay awake. I think I used up so much nervous energy and adrenalin over the viva, I just wanted to sleep it off. Monday I was working at the Black Ladd as usual, so it was Tuesday before I could take a look at the ‘minor revisions’ and see what they entailed. After a visit to the hairdresser on Tuesday morning, and calling at the pharmacy for a prescription to be told my medication is rationed—again—due to the bloody B word (grrrr!) I came home to work. But the best laid plans of mice and women…I had a phone call from my daughter, Amie, asking if I could doggy-sit her sister-in-law’s Cavoodle (Cavalier King Charles/poodle cross), as sister-in-law had a funeral to go to. Of course I said yes. My plan was to take Lulu up to the study with me and work while she had doggy snoozes on the futon. Lulu had different ideas. She is not a dog to be ignored, spent the morning making sure we noticed her. A proper drama queen, she wouldn’t rest, was on our knees, licking faces, jumping from one to the other of us. Snacks? No thank you, just attention. I took her out for a walk, it did nothing to calm her down. We had to put her into the conservatory so we could have lunch, a kind of respite break for us. After lunch we took her to Diggle for a walk along the canal to Grandpa Greene’s: a doggy sausage for Lulu and a coffee for us. She did slow down a bit when we got home and even dozed for a while; but by then work was a no-no for the day. She is a lovely dog, friendly—a bit too friendly—and cute but so demanding of attention. By the time she calmed down after the walk, I was exhausted. I left work alone until Wednesday.

But Wednesday wasn’t the best day for work either. My lovely cat, Rosie Parker had to go to the vet for dental work. She has an auto-immune disease that attacks her teeth beneath the gum-line, so she had to have six extractions, poor thing. We got her to the vet for 8.15 a.m. Worrying about your cat isn’t the best climate for work. I did read the viva report to check out the revisions; I read the comments on the thesis from the external examiner. I emailed Antony, my Director of Studies, to discuss the best way to approach the revisions. Then I put them and the thesis aside to prepare for a poetry reading in the evening, sorting and practising my fifteen minute set.

Wednesday evening was the Lancaster launch of the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet from Beautiful Dragons Press, and Barbara Hickson, one of the three latest spawn of the dragon, had asked Hilary and me, as first-born spawn, to read from our own pamphlet at the launch. I prepared a set that included some more recent poems as well as a set from Some Mothers Do... (DragonSpawn Press 2018) I timed them in the reading: it’s bad manners, and unprofessional, to over-run your time allocation. After lunch we went to the vet to collect Rosie. She came home with medication. I’m reluctant to go poking around her sore mouth with a pipette, so I’ve been finding new and inventive ways to administer it: but she’s canny, and so far I guess she’s taken about 10% of her dose. Dairylea cheese? Nah! Double cream? Nah! Dripped onto wholemeal bread, which she usually loves? Nah. Yesterday, single cream seemed to do the trick, but even so I’m not completely sure it isn’t Jimbo who’s been lapping her spiked cream. Really, you can only do your best.

So, after she was home, and safely installed in her favourite hidey- hole under the futon in the study, I went with Hilary and her husband, David, to Lancaster for the launch. Bill stayed home to Rosie-sit. After a meal in a Turkish restaurant, Medusa, we went to the Royal King’s Arms for the launch. It was a lovely evening. Neither the two other poets in the collection, Gabriel Griffin and Bev Morris, nor Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons, could be there, so the poet Sarah Hymas chaired the evening. Barbara read from Rugged Rocks Ragged Rascals (DragonSpawn Press, 2019). Her poems are gentle but with an underlying depth of tenderness. Several of the poems deal with place: her regular visits to the Hebrides, or the hills and coastline of Lancashire and Cumbria, ‘where your name is written on the shore,/ each letter shaped by the wind…’ She read them beautifully. I would have liked to meet and hear the missing dragon sisters, but that’s a treat for the future. We both bought copies of the book, which she signed: ‘For Rachel—congratulations to us both! With love, Barbara.’ Hilary read next, a mixed set of pamphlet and newer poems, and my set was in the second half. Barbara’s nephew and his son provided music for the evening, guitar duets. It was an appropriately happy and celebratory event.

I’ve had several ‘congratulations’ cards in the post this week, including one from friend Joan, which had a string of letters on the envelope. It actually made me laugh out loud. It was addressed to Dr Rachel Davies, BEd (Hons), BA (Hons), Msc, MA (Dist), PhD. How ridiculous is that—a whole alphabet of letters after my name? I’m going to stop now. No really, I am.

Saturday I bit the bullet and sat down at my desk to make an attack on the revisions. Actually, they’re not as daunting as I thought when I first read them on Wednesday. How often does that happen: you take an initial reading and you just notice the scary stuff, the negative stuff. As a species we don’t tend to pick up on the positives. But we should. I read and took notes, corrected a few typos (despite the nit comb I used before I submitted the thesis back in May). I made a note of books I need to refer to when I get round to editing. I feel as if I pummelled the job into submission. It’s doable. I’m planning a visit to the library at MMU on Wednesday to check out the books I need. I hope they’ll let me in, now I’m not officially enrolled as a student any more. Hopefully my student card will still allow me access.

I spent the rest of the day putting some of the thesis poems together into a pamphlet to submit for publication. I chose twenty of the strongest—in my opinion—in the collection, including ten ‘alternative mothers’. It’s hard to get the tempo of a pamphlet right, to order them to show them off at their best. It took a time to get them sorted, and when I was satisfied I sent them out to the Mslexia/PBS competition, which closes tonight. Ambitious, but hey! We’ll see. I’ll send them to other places in the meantime.

So that’s it. Another full week where the PhD still looms large despite having achieved a pass. I called into the Halifax on Friday to see how I get my title changed on my accounts: ‘Mrs’ into ‘Dr’. It feels the right thing to do, especially as I divorced the Davies two decades ago. It’ll be good to get rid of that tie once and for all. But I have to wait a bit longer, apparently, until I get the official certificate. Ho hum, keep beavering away at the revisions, Rach.

Here’s a poem from the collection. I think it speaks for itself. It’s going to be published in the journal Domestic Cherry 7 in October: I’m going to read it at the journal’s launch during ‘The Big Poetry Weekend’, on Sunday, October 6th in Swindon. Hilary and I are going to the festival anyway, so it’ll be nice to contribute in a very small way.

Spooning

What I remember of the spoon is
how it was her crowd control at mealtimes
how she held it upright in her hand,
its handle to the table-top, how it tapped
a rhythm like a slow drum

how when we laughed we knew the spoon
would greet us with a firm handshake,
a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself
on the back of our hands, how we tried
not to laugh but it was a contagion

how you tried to drown your laughter
in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves
across your face like freckles and we laughed,
laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now…

Rachel Davies

2016

 

 

Dr Davies

 

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Lovely flowers, a gift from my daughter and sons

This week has been all about the viva. ‘Viva voce’ literally translates as ‘living voice’: a viva is an oral examination, an examination of the thesis in ‘the living voice’, i.e. orally. An interview. I didn’t enjoy interviews when I was working, viewed them as a necessary evil; and I wasn’t looking forward to this one. But I had an email from MMU, about the viva, seeking my permission for observers to be present. I declined: being ever so slightly interview-phobic, it’s enough to have people in the room who are required to be there. However, the email also had some useful information about the viva: there was a series of videos about a woman who had been through the viva, always ending with her being presented with her degree at the summer ceremony. I have been trying that visualisation thing this week, seeing myself walking confidently into the viva, seeing myself relaxed and answering the questions with a degree of authority; seeing myself in the bonnet and gown. So not only was the content of the videos useful, I could visualise myself as successful, receiving my degree next summer; just the viva left to negotiate. There was also a link to a set of the ’40 most commonly asked viva questions’ in the email. I clicked the link and printed off the questions. I spent a couple of days working through them. They were very open-ended: ‘What about your thesis do you consider to be its strengths?’; ‘Where is it weakest?; ‘Why did you choose this particular subject for you research?’; ‘Why do you think we should give you a PhD?’: that kind of openness. I enjoyed responding to the questions and they certainly concentrated the mind. If the actual viva had that form of open question, I felt I would be OK.

On Thursday evening, the evening before the viva, I went with Hilary to Didsbury for The Other, a reading event where you swap writing with a partner and read each other’s work to the audience. I was paired with Louise Finnegan, who is a teacher in Manchester. She’d sent me two prose pieces to choose from, extracts from novels she’s writing. I chose to read the piece about a young boy and one of those supermarket rides, a spaceship, his dad has brought home for him. It read like a short story, so it felt complete even though it was an extract. The other piece had a sexual scene in it, delicately written, but as I said at the reading, I don’t do sex in public! I sent Louise a set of seven poems: the Whittlesey Wash poem I wrote recently—I wanted to hear how it sounded in the reading—and a selection of my alternative mothers. Hilary and I travelled to Didsbury on the tram: I love Metrolink. We passed a Lebanese restaurant on the way to the Metropolitan, the venue for the reading; so we had a lovely Lebanese meal before we read. Michael Conley was the MC for the event: another MMU MA graduate. It was a good night, some interesting writing, and my poems were the last to be read, so the audience was left with them ringing in their ears at the end of the night, which was lovely. I received very positive feedback, just what I needed before the viva. And the event was just what I needed too, a diversion: it took my mind off the viva for those few hours.

On Friday I went about my normal Friday business: I always call in to the Black Ladd to cash up the tills for Amie’s business on a Friday, so we did this as usual. We, Bill and I, went in to Manchester, had a coffee and a disgustingly sweet cake in Costa. I left Bill at the Art Gallery and walked along Oxford Road to Allsaints Campus and the Righton Building, the venue for the viva. I was directed upstairs to Room 1.12. The viva was at 1.00 p.m. so I had about ten minutes to spare to catch my breath before I was called into the room by Dr Nikolai Duffy, who chaired the meeting. The viva panel was comprised of Prof Michael Symmons Roberts, internal examiner: yes Michael Symmons Roberts the wonderful poet, whom I know quite well from Poets and Players and from doing my annual reviews during the PhD process; and Dr Ursula Hurley from Salford Uni, the external examiner. I had sought her out on the internet during the week and read some of her work, an article, ‘Fail again, fail better’, about process versus product learning in higher education, which I’d found really interesting. I shook hands all round and we were underway. The first question was open: ‘why did you want to do the PhD’. It was just what I needed to settle the nerves. Other questions were more directly related to aspects of the thesis itself, questioning research decisions and findings; questioning my rationale behind choices I’d made or conclusions I’d come to; finally asking me about the creative element, which they felt was a strong set of poems: how did I come to write the poems, the process, my poetics and working methods. The viva took an hour and a half altogether, but the time seemed to fly. I think I answered some questions more lucidly than others, but I was happy that I had defended the thesis to the best of my ability. I went for a coffee while the panel discussed the viva and drew conclusions. I read through the poems while I had my coffee, to take my mind off the wait. Nikolai came to find me in the Business School café when the deliberations were over. We walked back to Room 1.12 together and he was so lovely, chatting away to dispel the nerves. He asked after Hilary, whose poetry he supervised during her MA. I took a deep breath as I walked into the room, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I took my seat at the table. I noticed a tray of cakes and fruit in the centre of the table that hadn’t been there during the viva. I looked at Dr Hurley. ‘Congratulations’, she said and I knew I’d passed. That one little word knocked the breath out of my lungs, I could have cried but I didn’t have the breath even to cry. Nikolai explained that the decision had been ‘Pass, but with minor revisions to the text.’ This is one of the levels of pass: typos to correct, minor revisions, rewrites of a section, rewrites of the whole thing then resubmission. So I was happy with ‘minor revisions’. Nikolai offered to read out what the revisions were, but my brain was mousse by then so I asked him not to, I’d look when my brain was more accepting. I’d passed, that was the only thought that was going to find space in my head for the next hour! They called me Dr Davies and shook my hand, congratulated me, explained the process for the revisions and it was over. I left the room.

I rang Bill at the Gallery, I rang Amie at the Black Ladd, I rang Hilary; but I knew I wasn’t being particularly coherent. ‘I did it!’ was about all I could manage. I rang Jean Sprackland, supervisor of the creative element, and left a message on her answerphone. I got the bus along Oxford St. to the Art Gallery to find Bill. I’d meant to walk, but I had all three copies of the thesis in my bag, complete with the panel’s evaluation notes, so I took the bus. We, Bill and I, went to Don Giovanni for a late lunch, early evening meal: it was about 4.30 by now. I ordered a bucket full of the coldest, driest white wine in the house. I’d earned it! Jean rang me back while we were in the restaurant and it was good to speak to her; particularly satisfying to be able to tell her they thought the poems were strong. Her support has been fundamental to the creative aspect. We agreed to meet up soon for coffee and cake.

We called in at the Black Ladd on the way home. Amie gave me a great big hug, which was lovely; she also gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, the bouquet in the photo at the top of this blog post, from her and my two sons. She’d ordered them before the viva, because she said she knew I’d do it. Bless her, she’s a diamond.  She also gave me a bottle of Chablis to celebrate with Bill when we got home. We did celebrate. And we celebrated again on Saturday when we went out for a lovely meal which we accompanied with a bottle of Moët. ‘Doctors always drink Moët,’ I joked, ‘it’s the law.’

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Moët celebrations

So that’s it, the culmination of five years of hard work. There were times I didn’t think I’d do it, times I came close to giving up. I remember after the very first induction meeting when I began the PhD, how it felt as if a huge chasm had opened up in front of me and I had no idea how I would negotiate a path to the other side. The PhD was a destination and I had to find the map. Of course, as I started the work I realised it wasn’t a destination at all, it was a journey. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There were times I genuinely questioned whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I remember saying to a poet friend who is also doing the PhD at MMU that I really didn’t know if I’d get a PhD at the end of it, but I was enjoying the work. ‘Don’t worry about it Rachel,’ she’d said, ‘if they don’t give you a PhD they’ll give you an MPhil or something. They won’t let you leave empty-handed.’ That made me smile, seeing MPhil as a substitute, an academic wooden spoon; because somewhere students are beavering away to achieve just that. But MPhil just wouldn’t have cut it for me, it would have felt like failure. PhD or nothing was where I was at. And now I have a PhD. I rewrote my writer’s biographical statement yesterday, in preparation for the Dragon Spawn reading next Wednesday. For the first time, I’ll be introduced as Dr Rachel Davies. What a perfect prize is that!

I suppose I’ll have to think of a different tag line for the blog now; well soon, anyway. I still have the ‘minor revisions’ to tackle: I’ll be checking them out later today. I have four months to complete them, although I hope it won’t take that long. And there is always the degree ceremony and its attendant celebration; and that delightful Tudor bonnet and fur edged gown. Bring it on!

I’m going to leave you with a poem from the thesis collection; this is one Dr Hurley commented that she particularly liked, so this is for her. I wrote it at a Poets&Players workshop, I can’t remember if it was the one run by Ian Duhig or Steve Ely, but the essence of the workshop was a Meredith Frampling painting, ‘A Game of Patience’. This is the poem I wrote from the painting.

 

The Patience of Persephone

After ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampling

 She waits for six months in a year
then waits again for six.
She can’t have what she most desires,
that lost part of herself. Listen!
That’s her rummaging upstairs,
another fruitless search in the loft.

I sense the black king’s impatient
for his alabaster maiden, his ice queen.
From reaping to sowing he thinks he can thaw me
with his red hot pomegranate flesh,
his spiked wine.
He blows on my neck but I don’t melt.
So he waits all over again, from sowing to reaping.

I know it’s time to decide:
the corn’s threshed, the straw’s stacked
but I’ll finish my game.
This card says go — you owe him.
That card says stay — you owe her.
It’s all one to me — it seems like
nothing’s owed to me.
But, sod it,
my patience wears thin!

 

Rachel Davies
2017

Alternative Mothers

I’m on the big countdown to the viva. It’s next Friday, only five days away and counting. I’ve been doing my homework this week, literally. I’ve been re-reading the thesis. When I collected it from the printers in May, I was minimally upset that I’d requested it to be single-sided printing. I thought I’d asked for double-sided, so I was surprised when it was fatter than I expected when I collected it. I’m now realising what a serendipity that actually was. I’m reading it through, best-guessing what I’m likely to be asked about in the viva. The blank page is a godsend for making notes at those places where I feel I need to. I always write on the right-hand page of my poetry journals, leaving the left-hand page blank for redrafting etc. Inadvertently, the same applies with the thesis. I’m reading, taking notes and it’s going to spare me a lot of sheets of paper to carry, to get dropped and mixed up on the day. ‘But you’re spoiling your lovely thesis,’ I hear you gasp. Well, I’ve already spotted typos, despite going through it with a nit comb before I submitted, so I’ll have to have an edited copy published for the library anyway, I suspect. And I’ve done the note-taking in pencil, so it can be rubbed out if no edits ordered. Win-win.

On Tuesday I had to go into Uppermill first thing for a haircut. I took my MacBook and when I’d finished at the hairdresser, I went across the road to Abaco for an alfresco coffee and to do some work in the lovely sunshine. First, I emailed Jo Shapcott on behalf of Poets&Players. I had a swift response, and the upshot is, she’ll be reading for us in January 2020. January 25this the date, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 2.30-4.00 p.m. Be there! In the meantime, there’s news on our website of our line-up of Autumn events, beginning with headliner Sasha Dugdale on September 21st, details here: https://poetsandplayers.co

But the real reason I took my MacBook to the hairdresser’s was to redraft the Whittlesey Wash poem following my drive along the B1040 a couple of Sundays ago. I’m so glad I went, because the second section of my original poem did indeed lack authenticity. I redrafted it on Tuesday in the light of the drive. I included changes to the pollarded willows, which now have thick heads of hair, they’re ‘rastatrees, reggae tributes’. Some are falling over, some have fallen completely, ‘wrecks on the seabed’. There are ‘files of pylons marching’ across the flat wetland, and wind turbines ‘harvesting the wind’. I love the changes I made. I kept it for a day or two, then, a couple of days ahead of deadline, I sent it to Rebecca Bilkau, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, for inclusion in the anthology. Of course, inclusion will depend on her decision; but she responded that she liked it; was a bit concerned that it might be a couple of lines too long, but that’s OK, I already know where I can shorten it by a couple of lines, so I’m hopeful.

I’ve had other successes with my poetry this week too. I’ve heard from my partner in Thursday’s reading at The Other in Didsbury. This is an event where you’re paired with another writer and you read each other’s work. I’m swapping work with Louise Finnegan. Louise is thinking of sending me a passage from her ‘novel in progress’ to read at the event, so that’ll be interesting, something different for me, to read a prose passage. I’m thinking of sending Louise some of my alternative mother poems; about which I had some good news yesterday. In June, I submitted four of my favourites to an online poetry magazine, the ‘Masks’ edition of Writers’ Café, edited by Marie Lightman. Yesterday I heard that Marie wants to take all four. ALL FOUR! This is the first time I’ve had a block of poems published in a magazine, so I’m thrilled. The alternative mothers concerned are  #9: Cynthia; #13: Rhona the Ratgirl; #1: Kali; and #17: Alice. I’m really pleased they’ve found homes, particularly Rhona. She’s a stonker! I’ll let you know when the Masks issue is online.

On Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza meeting at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. There were eight members there this week, which was lovely. Two members brought their son/daughter, who were visiting; we joked it was ‘bring-your-offspring-to-Stanza’ day. We had a writing session; Pat and Rod brought writing prompts; Linda should have brought one, but had to send apologies due to a nasty migraine; so two members improvised with extra activities. We had a good evening; I didn’t write anything I’d brag about but some people did. I hope they go away and make something of their poems, send them out into the world to earn a living. At our next session we’re reading and discussing the short-listed Forward Prize nominations. That’s going to be a good meeting: September 24th, 7.30 at the Buffet Bar; come along if you can.

On Wednesday Amie and I went to Peterborough for a last leisurely visit to my son, Richard, before he returns to his teaching job after the school holiday. I know from my own teaching life that August is the shortest month on the calendar. When you break-up in July, August is a long rest spread out in front of you. And then, pfft, it’s gone and suddenly it’s September and the return to work. So we took a trip to Peterborough to see Richard and a couple of other friends. We had a lovely day: the weather was mostly fine, despite it being mizzly up here in the hills. We went for drinks and a meal and had a thoroughly relaxing day. Of course, Wednesday was the day PM Johnson suspended Parliament, and that was the core of most of our conversation. Johnson can dress up his actions as constitutional as much as he likes; you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Yes, Parliament is always prorogued before a Queen’s Speech; but not for five weeks; and not at the heart of the greatest constitutional crisis to hit this country since the war. We all know this is really a ploy to thwart Parliament’s democratic right to discuss, and hopefully divert, a no-deal crashing-out of Europe. And we all know Dominic Cummings, unelected puppeteer, is the one pulling the Downing Street strings. What is he even doing at the heart of government? I’ll be out on the streets on Monday evening, St Peter’s Square in Manchester, with Hilary, protesting this affront to our democracy. Brexiteers may call our outcry sour grapes, or anti-democratic or whatever other ridiculous slur they like; but if they voted for anything in the referendum, they voted to restore what they perceived as our ‘lost sovereignty’. How is sovereignty restored by suspending democracy? Open your eyes, Leavers. When you give me genuine, sensible reasons for leaving the EU, apart from ‘we won and we want it, deal or no-deal’, I’ll concede; but I haven’t heard one good reason, so I’ll keep objecting. It’s the democratic thing to do. And by your argument, the 2016 referendum was undemocratic, because we voted in a referendum in 1975 to stay in the Union and that should have been the end of it, according to your own objections. One election isn’t definitive; protest is at the heart of democracy; and I’ll be protesting Johnson’s/Cummings’s gross abuse of democracy on Monday evening. St Peter’s Square, at the site of the Peterloo Masacre; how appropriate is that?

In other news this week, Rosie Parker, my lovely cat, hasn’t been speaking to me after her visit to the vet. She’s been hiding under the futon in my study most of the week, keeping out of my way. Not only did I take her to the vet, I keep insisting she takes her meds since she got home. I hope she loves me again soon. But she has to go back to the vet again next week for dental treatment. She has an autoimmune disease that’s attacking her teeth below the gumline, so they are having to come out. I’m thinking she’ll never forgive me after this latest ‘abuse’.

Finally, a word or two about Ben Stokes. We watched the last day of the Ashes Test on Sunday. Wow. Stunning display of batting from Stokes as he saved the Test series with an England win, against all the odds. He did it in the summer, against New Zealand in the one-day World Cup final; and he did it again on Sunday. BBC Sports Personality of 2019? In my view, no-one else need apply!

In celebration of having four alternative mothers accepted for publication, I’m going to leave you with an alternative mother poem that means a lot to me personally. It’s in honour of Hilary’s mum, Jean. I never met her, but I was invited to her funeral, to support Hilary, who read a lovely piece at the funeral about her mum, who sounded like a wonderful woman. I asked Hilary afterwards if I could be her sister, because I would love to have her mum as my mum. Her response? ‘You already are my sister!’ So, despite it’s being #4 in the thesis, this is the first ‘alternative mother’ poem I actually wrote, following the funeral. I’ve included lots of the things Hilary had in her lovely tribute to her mum; some I’ve kept as they were, some I’ve embellished or altered in some slight way. This poem, this ‘alternative mother’, was written for Hilary and for Hilary’s mum: my mother-by-proxy.

 

Alternative Mother #4

Jean

For fun, you push me round the lounge
on the Ewbank till I beg you to stop, teach me
hula hoop, two-ball, how it’s good to laugh.

You soothe my grazes with Germolene,
say a hug helps, say it’s alright to cry.
You know the healing power of a biscuit.

You hand-sew my wedding dress,
stitch into a secret seam a blue satin ribbon,
a lock of your own hair, all the love it takes.

You take my daughter out,keep her
for bedtime stories, forget to bring her home
so I worry she’s followed the rabbit down the hole.

You make me dance, even on those days
when the music died in me. You teach me
the euphoria of champagne.

You bake scones so light they float down
to my daughter’s daughters like hot-air balloons.

Rachel Davies
2016

A drive down memory lane

On Sunday last I drove to Thorney in Cambridgeshire to find the B1040 road, a road I travelled many times as a child, from my home just outside Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m currently working on a poem for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Well, Dam…addressing ways human activity has used and abused the planet’s natural water supply. Water is both a life-giver and a destroyer, as was all too apparent recently with the damaged dam at Whaley Bridge. My own poem is about the B1040 and the pollarded willows, planted by the roadside, that used to seem to shake their fists at me as a child. It’s these willows that are central to my poem. There are two stanzas: one describing my childhood memory of riding along the B1040 in my dad’s car; and one describing driving that same road as an adult. I wanted my poem to be authentic, so I decided to drive 150 miles in order to take that road trip. I booked us a table at the Dog in a Doublet, which is about half way along the road, between Thorney and Whittlesey.

We arrived in Thorney at about 1.00 p.m. The A47 to Wisbech and Kings Lynn bypasses the village now. When I was a child it went through the village, past the Rose and Crown pub and past the alms-houses where my favourite teacher, Miss Bacon, used to live. But now you have to come off the A47 at a roundabout to pick up the B1040. It was weird to drive the road I knew so well as a child. I remembered how we used to be taken for ‘nature walks’ along the road-side when I was at primary school in Thorney. And I’d forgotten the two right-angled bends just out of the village. There were no pollarded willows between Thorney and the Dog in a Doublet at all, and I began to worry that my poem was more pipe-dream than memory. But the remembered landscape, ‘stretching forever across flat wetlands’ was real, as these photos show.

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We stopped for lunch. My father was born in an upstairs room at the Dog in a Doublet. He weighed a prodigious 14lbs at birth. My mother was always sceptical about this birth story: my dad always thought he was one of the tallest men on the planet, despite only being about 5ft 8ins; so she assumed the birth weight tale was part of this misconception about his real size. But then she met the midwife who delivered him, and who confirmed the story. While I’m having lunch, I’m thinking of my poor Grandma upstairs, pushing out a whole stone of baby. My own boys were 9lbs at birth, and that was labour enough for me!

After lunch we drove on from the D in a D towards Whittlesey; and there were the pollarded willows. In the second stanza of my poem, written as an adult from a childhood memory, those willows still stand tall and threatening in their pollarded state. The truth is, they’ve changed. They’re still ranked alongside the water-way that we called Whittlesey Wash, a man-made drainage dyke that runs alongside the road. But they’ve grown dreadlocks of dangling leafy branches so that you’d hardly know they were pollared at all; some are falling at precarious angles, some have fallen completely and lie by the roadside looking forlorn. The seried ranks of threatening willows of my childhood looked sad, aged, in need of a retirement home. Pylons march across the flat fields, which I don’t remember from childhood, but which were almost certainly there then; and new wind turbines are well placed to capture the wind that blows straight from the Urals across the flat landscape of northern Europe. I got to Whittlesey, negotiated a roundabout and drove all the way back along the B1040 to Thorney. I visited my old primary school, The Duke of Bedford and then drove on to my childhood home along English Drove. The three bungalows, which were new when we moved into one of them when I was nine, are still there; but they look old and tired too. Perhaps all the places of your early memories age, grow ‘old and tired’ in step with your own ageing. I’d seen all I needed to see: it was worth the long drive to see how I need to work some more on my second stanza to reflect changes to that childhood landscape. I drove home to Saddleworth.

On Monday I continued to grapple with the new Sage software to do my daughter’s books at the Black Ladd. It’s all done in the Cloud now, to enable easy access to HMRC for tax purposes. I can access it on my MacBook, which is good: the former software couldn’t work with Apple operating system. But the downside is, my MacBook doesn’t have a number pad, so the number keys are all in a row along the top of the qwerty keyboard. I decided to order a Bluetooth number pad to work with MacBook. It arrived later in the week, a beautiful, slim gismo that is a perfect accessory for my lovely slim computer. But on Monday I was tired from the drive on Sunday; so by the end of the day my concentration was waning. Trying to reconcile the last bank statement, instead of the necessary 0, I kept getting a figure that was £40 out. I checked and double checked, same result. I decided to pack up and go home; I brought the bank statement home, to work on when my brain wasn’t so frazzled. I found my mistake on Thursday: two amounts with the same four digits, in slightly different configuration, so they looked similar. At last, the desired zero!

The rest of the week I’ve been carrying on with the post-PhD spring clean. I tackled Bill’s display cases of Burago classic car models. I waited until he was out of the house, and I didn’t tell him I was going to do them or he would have hung around to make sure I was treating them with the respect he considers they deserve. Of course I did! I dusted every one of them with a very soft cloth, cleaned their shelves, rearranged them in much the same order. By the time he came home they were done. I also removed, dusted, reorganised all the books on the bookshelves lining the landing. What a horrible job. And, being a sensible grown-up woman, I undertook the job in white jeans. Well, they were white when I started; by the time I finished they looked decidedly grey. The books had an accumulation of four PhD years worth of dust. I got rid of some books about the Royal Family: not my books, I come from Major Fairfax country. They belonged to Bill’s late wife; but I asked before I sent them to the charity shop, along with various how-to books on art techniques: How to do watercolour; How to do life drawing—that kind of thing. If I ever need to do those things in future, I’ll do what I always do and fly by the seat of my pants. I disturbed several very large spiders, which can stay as my guests as long as they don’t party all night and keep me awake. But the find of the day was yet another copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, which is one of my all-time favourite poetry  collections. I have three on my poetry shelves in the study already; and I’ve given away a couple of copies to friends and family members. I also have a signed copy; so maybe I’ll take this one to Stanza on Tuesday and see if any of my members want/need a copy. I think CAD should pay me royalties.

Other events this week: Hilary has booked us for a slot in The Other, a poetry open mic event hosted by Michael D Conley and Eli Regan, both friends from my time at MMU on the MA Creative Writing course. This is a different kind of open mic, in that you swap poems with another poet and read each other’s work to the audience. The event is in Didsbury on Thursday September 5th, the night before my Viva. Hilary said she’s going to get me drunk so I can fetch up at my Viva with a massive hang-over like a real student. It’s a plan; not sure it’s a good one.

Lastly, we have a date and venue for the launch of the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Rugged Rocks Ragged Rascals, at the Royal Kings Arms Hotel in Lancaster on September 11th, from 7.00 p.m. Barbara HIckson, one of the three poets in the pamphlet, has asked Hilary and me to read from our own Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Some Mothers Do…, at the launch. I’m holding off sending my introductory biography: I’m hoping this will be the first time I can be introduced as Dr Rachel Davies and I can’t pre-empt that outcome. The event is five days after the Viva, so I should be recovered from my massive student hang-over by then.

I read one of my earlier blog posts this week, about a long week-end on one of Kim Moore’s poetry carousels three years ago. I was recovering from a back injury I’d sustained on my birthday the month before, so it was touch and go whether I could go on the carousel at all. I wrote this poem at Kim’s workshop. It addressed those incidents from our lives that don’t seem to bear any real importance until years later, when we understand the real relevance of them. When I was teaching, people often asked what you need to become a teacher. They were probably thinking GCSE qualifications, areas of expertise etc. But I always used to say ‘you need to remember what it feels like to be a child’. That’s what was paramount for me. If you couldn’t remember the minor put-downs you endured, or the uplifting highs of praise or achievement, you’d be less as a teacher, in my opinion. This incident from my childhood was probably where that notion came from. Poor Barry. I’ve never forgotten how this must have felt.

 

Teacher in Training

I did my growing up in that room.
We were ranked by our last exam results,
sat from desk one, row one left for top scorer
to desk six, row five right for bottom of the class.
My space was always desk two or three, row one
left; the last seats right reserved for Barry Button
and Billy Dart. Mr Peel would sit at his desk on a dais,
eyes front, trying but mostly failing to be frightening.
There was the poster of God that hung on the wall;
the birds that follow the plough, the dry leaves,
snail shells, pierced conkers on the nature table.

We never questioned this order of things,
it was what it was and my place was secure
in the social order until that day Barry Button
couldn’t say the word the, the digraph th usurped
by the phoneme v. I felt his humiliation as a worm
eating me from the inside, but Mr Peel kept trying
and failing to get Barry to say the, a public torture
that we held our breaths to watch. Some of us laughed
from amusement or nerves or embarrassment or
if it wasn’t Barry it would be me. I didn’t know then
that this would be my yardstick for how not to teach.

Rachel Davies
August 2016

Wetlands, cheap hotels and dentists

At the beginning of this week I was in a holiday cottage in Highley near Bridgnorth. The weather was kind, only raining overnight and early in the morning. When we needed to go out, the sun shone and it was warm. But autumn was already in the air, as this photo of ripening blackberries attests to.

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On Sunday we all: my partner and I, my sons, my daughter, her partner and her two Cockerpoos, caught the steam train of the Severn Valley railway and went into Bridgnorth for the day. It was a weekend for poetry books: my son Richard found me another poetry book in an Oxfam shop, A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Palmers Press, 1994). There is a foreword by Eric Finney who uses lines from the sequence to illustrate his point about his personal joy in the poems, which he kept in the pocket of his battledress during his national service:

By blowing realms of woodland
With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
About the windy weald.

This as well as anything describes our train journey into Bridgnorth. Our return journey was first class, because that’s the compartment we sat ourselves down in and we couldn’t be bothered to move. It cost us an upgrade, and we really got nothing for it, but it was an experience. When we got home Angus took the dogs and Bill home, Mike went home and Richard, Amie and I stayed on an extra night. We played very silly card games, drank beer and ate vegan burgers, which were surprisingly good. On Monday we packed up the cars and headed to Kings Lynn via Peterborough (to drop off Richard’s bags). We stopped in a Travelodge on Monday night, which always reminds me of that Selima Hill poem that, unfortunately, I can’t find a reference to. Disparagingly, she calls it Travel Odge because that, after all, is how it’s spelt.  On Tuesday we went on to Cromer to meet up with family, who we don’t see often enough because, well, have you ever tried to drive into Norfolk from Greater Manchester? We had a lovely day and promised not to leave it so long next time. And we meant it. At the time. On the way home from Cromer I had an email from Mabel Watson telling me she has accepted one of my poems for publication in Domestic Cherry 7 and inviting me to read it at the Big Poetry Weekend in October in Swindon: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-big-poetry-weekend-tickets-58628979857  Of course I said yes: I’m going to the event anyway, so reading my poem will be an added extra.

On Wednesday I was doing the books at Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd. I use the accountant’s Sage software to keep the books and it’s just been upgraded to an online programme in the Cloud, to facilitate Making Tax Digital—so that the taxman can keep tabs on your business willy nilly. It took me all day Wednesday to do a tenth of the work I normally do in a day, so I had to go in again on Saturday to finish off. I know I’ll get quicker at it as I get used to the changes in the software, but really, it seems complicated. Actually, I think it will be quicker and easier to use when I get into a way of working. It’s the ‘finding out how to…’ that takes the time.

On Friday I was at the dentist at 8.00 a.m. for a filling. I broke a molar around Christmas; broke it quite spectacularly, there wasn’t much of it left. But it wasn’t painful and it was safe to leave it for a while, Dr Naeem assured me; so I made an appointment for August. Now, I don’t like dentists as a species, but my dentist is the most gentle man. He is genuinely lovely and caring. So I fetched up in Uppermill before breakfast for the repair. And there’s my first mistake. He put the novocaine into my gum, asked me to wait for it to take effect. I got up off the chair with very wobbly legs, trying to stay upright. ‘You didn’t have breakfast, did you?’ he asked. ‘Sit in the waiting room and the nurse will bring you a drink to get your blood sugars up.’ She did; she brought me a Coke. Who knew a dentist would serve you Coke? But it did the trick and my legs started to behave again. The filling took about forty minutes altogether; forty minutes with four hands, a ton of ironmongery and an upright Hoover in my mouth while I tried very hard not to gag. But the job is done, and it feels fine. Because it was such a big filling, I quite expected to be dosing myself with Cocodamol when the Novocaine wore off; but no, no pain at all. As I said, Dr Naeem is such a gentle and caring man.

I’ve been reading my thesis with an eye to what might provoke a question or two for the Viva, which is now less than three weeks away. I’ve spotted a couple of places where I would formulate questions if I were doing the examining; but I’m not, so of course questions may come from there or from any other aspect of the work. I’m remembering what I used to tell my staff when they presented for interviews: that the interview belongs to the interviewee. ‘It’s your interview, so if there’s anything you particularly want to say make sure you fit it into answers to the questions you’re asked.’ I just want to say ‘give me a pass, give me a PhD’, but it’s hard to see how that can fit into any question without being too obvious. So I’ll read my thesis and make sure I know it inside out and backwards and just hope for the best. After all, it can’t be as bad as a mammoth filling at the dentist, can it? Can it?

Later today I’m heading south again to drive along the Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040 from Thorney to Whittlesey. It’s a road I used to travel a lot as a child, from our home in Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m writing a poem about it for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, Well, Dam… The proposed publication date is November-ish and the deadline for submissions is August 31st. The anthology is a collection of poems addressing the way human activity has used and abused the planet’s water supply. I’ve drafted my poem from a memory of sixty years, so I want to drive the road again to make sure it feels authentic. We’re stopping for lunch at the Dog in a Doublet pub, about halfway along the drive. My dad was born in an upstairs room at the Dog in a Doublet, more than 100 years ago. He weighed a prodigious 14lbs at birth! I know! And I know it to be true, because my mum was sceptical until she met the midwife who delivered him and who confirmed the birth weight as a fact. It comes into the early draft of my poem. I think it might stay.

So, I’ll love you and leave you. This is another poem I wrote about the fens, about the North Sea calling in the debt from the loan of the land to agriculture. In 1953 East Anglia suffered extensive flooding. My dad was called out in the night to go to Kings Lynn on volunteer flood relief work. I always thought my Mum would have liked to have gone really: she wasn’t suited to a domestic role, but that’s what life dealt her, and you can only play the hand you’re dealt; so she stayed home while he did all the exciting stuff, as was expected at that time. This poem is about imagining her, and other women from the neighbourhood, taking the place of the men on that flood relief sortie. It is, of course, a complete fairy tale.

Bedtime Story

Once upon a midnight, 1953,
a loud knocking at the door.
A little girl, call her Mary, can hear
our protagonist, the mother, talking;
another voice Mary doesn’t recognize,
a piquancy of danger in their words,
Mary’s father saying well of course
you’re not going

but just this once, the mother refuses
to honour and obey, she goes anyway,
leaves little Mary, leaves husband, house
joins other women from the village.
The mother drives 30 miles
through the black Fenland night.

In the distant past, an evil genius —
call him Cornelius — borrowed Kings Lynn
from the sea, and on this midnight, 1953,
the town is inundated by the North Sea
surging along the mouth of the Wash
calling in Cornelius’s debt.

The mother works all night, a Fenland
Grace Darling, rowing, rescuing,
carrying to safety folk whose belongings
are rubber ducks bobbing in a bath.

There’s no happily ever after though:
this story ends with a predatory shark,
patient under the flood waters.
And what big teeth he has!

Rachel Davies
2015

The Map and the Clock

Our journey was one of shared enthusiasms in poetry’s loved landscape… (Carol Ann Duffy)

Yesterday, my daughter found this for me in the Oxfam Bookshop in Shrewsbury:

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The Map and the Clock (London: Faber & Faber, 2016) is a fat anthology of British and Irish poetry from 600 A.D. to the present day, concluding with a poem by Zafar Kunial, who started his PhD with MMU the same day as me. It was compiled and edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, an initiative of Duffy’s tenure of the Poet Laureateship. It is a poetry festival and feast, and it cost me just £6.99!

The line heading this blog, which seemed to speak to me of my friendship with Hilary Robinson, is in Carol Ann Duffy’s introduction to the anthology. The landscape of our friendship is indeed a shared enthusiasm for poetry. We met for coffee on Tuesday this week. I hadn’t seen her for six weeks—she’s been in France with her daughter and grandchildren. So it was lovely to see her again. She made me a soft-toy rabbit—French name ‘Lunar Lapin’—for my birthday, with glitter Docs just like mine; and some gingerbread sloths in honour of my favourite alternative mother. I took my Whittlesey Wash poem to share with her; my confidence in it was not great, but she loved it as a first draft, so I’ll stick with it, work on it some more. I’m planning to go south to drive the B1040 again before the deadline date at the end of August, so I can check the truth of my poem, which I’ve written from a memory of more than six decades. When I told my partner Bill that I wanted to go, and asked if he wanted to come with me, his reaction was who in or around Whittlesey is likely to read the poem? That is so not the point: the poem should be true for the poet first of all, or what’s the point? He has agreed to come with me. He enjoyed the poem as well, so I think I might be onto something.

While Hilary and I were drinking coffee in the sunshine of Uppermill, we talked of our next Line Break, the poetry week we take about May every year to read, write and bathe in poetry. Kim Moore’s St. Ives workshop next year is later than usual, end of April into beginning of May: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/december-2018-poetry-carousel/Fiona Sampson is sharing the workshops with Kim; and Pascale Petit is the week’s guest reader. Bring it on! So we’re thinking of extending the week by taking our Line Break on the way home, perhaps in North Devon, or the Wye Valley, hiring a holiday cottage to stay the extra week. At least we’ve started thinking about planning it.

Two other events appeared on our ‘poetry landscape’ this week too. Firstly, Hilary booked tickets for a brilliant MMU event, Elbow front man Guy Garvey in conversation with our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/10717/Despite these being the hot literary ticket of the century, Hilary successfully managed to get us both tickets to the event. Secondly, the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Ragged Rocks and Running Rascals (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2019), has been announced: it involves our poet friend, Barbara Hickson, who graduated from MMU with an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing this summer. She shares authorship with Gabriel Griffin and Bev Morris. It’s so nice that Barbara will be our Dragon Sister; and even nicer that she’s invited Hilary and me to read at her launch event in October. We’ll be reading from our own Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Some Mothers Do… I’ll post details when I know venue and timing etc; but it will be in Lancaster and it would be good to see you there to support Barbara and her Spawn Sisters.

I carried on with the post-PhD clear-out this week. I completed the guest bedroom, which looks lovely and inviting now; and I made a start on the landing area. This is a huge task, because it involves book shelves lining the walls: lots of dusty tomes to take off the shelves to clean and decide if they stay or go; although of course they’ll stay, because who can bear to throw out books? The area is also home to Bill’s collection of model cars, three display cases full of Burago classic car models, built up over most of his lifetime. The anxiety on his face is profound when he reminds me how delicate they are, that they have small headlamps and fenders that could break off in the cleaning. I know this, and I’ll take care, even though I don’t entirely ‘get it’; but he doesn’t entirely ‘get’ my obsession with poetry either, and he is supportive none-the-less. I’ll be careful, Bill, I promise.

On Friday we came away to the Midlands for son Richard’s Big Birthday Bash. We’re staying in a cottage near Bridgnorth. I’m writing this from my bed in the cottage, just as the sun’s coming up outside. It’s lovely, right next to the beautiful River Severn. Richard was already here when Bill and I arrived at 4.00 p.m. on Friday; Amie, her partner Angus and their two Cockerpoos arrived about an hour later; and Michael arrived about 8.00 p.m. having driven up from Wiltshire after work. Yesterday we all went into Shrewsbury for the day, took the dogs to the park. There was a flower show in town, but dogs weren’t welcome so we didn’t go. But lots of people did, and we passed several people carrying flowers and plants back to their cars. When we got home we drank champagne in honour of Richard’s birthday: Krug and Bollinger, both lovely. I love champagne, I’d drink it all the time if I could afford it, so it’s just as well I can’t! Later today, I think we’re taking the Severn Valley Steam Train into Bridgnorth: the station is just a short walk from the cottage, and we’ve often heard the whistle calling its departure. It runs every half hour or so, so we can go at our leisure. The last train back is just before 6.00 p.m. Perfect!

So there you have it; another week gone. It’s less than four weeks to the Viva now, and the final decision on the PhD. I’m trying to remain optimistic. My champagne flute, as ever, is half full.

And so, a poem: this is an alternative mother poem about my Aunt Mary. She was my dad’s oldest sister, and a surrogate for the grandmother I never knew. Aunt Mary had lots of wonderful sayings that I used to tell the children I taught: “My old Aunt Mary used to say…” I don’t think they believed me most of the time, but it was all true. My favourites were “…I love hard work, I could watch it all day”; and “…you can call me anything you like, but don’t call me late for my dinner.” That last one came in very handy for playground fallings out! Aunt Mary was blind but I swear she could see more than most people. My sister and I had hula hoops for Christmas one year and we had an on-going competition to see who could do more hula hoops. One Saturday morning when I was in the house alone with Aunt Mary I did 143 and she was my only witness. She said she felt the hula hoop whistling past her ears; but they wouldn’t allow the record because, they said, I might have been blowing in her ear. As if you could fool Aunt Mary like that. I forgot to mention she was a world champion hiccupper too. She performed the most outrageously loud hiccups you ever heard: UUURRRRDUH! YAAAKKITY! You’d hear them three fields away. My sister and I would be silently peeing ourselves laughing behind her chair while she hiccupped her way through the morning; but not silently enough, obviously! “I know you young buggers are laughing at me,” she’d say.

Alternative Mother #12

Mary R

You say there’s none so blind
as them as don’t want to see.

You buy me a scarlet coat
so I’ll stand out from the crowd,

knit me rainbow socks on four needles,
make me feel their colours.

You show me how even
silent laughing can be loud
if you listen hard enough.

Your bosom
is a plumptious pillow for a story;
you tell me there is no tumbler in this life
that isn’t at least half full.

Be true to yourself, you say.
Live in peace with others
but always be your own lover.

 Fingertips are as useful as eyes,
you reckon, knuckles as feeling as fingertips
for finding your way out of dark spaces.

Rachel Davies
2018