Bureaucratic Barriers and Chiggy Pigs

I get that we live in an evidence based society and systems are in place to stop criminals laundering money. I understand that; I do. But lighten up! On Monday this week, I took my hard-won PhD letter of authority from MMU to the Manchester branch of the Halifax to change the title on my account. I know, it’s a frivolous reason to gain a PhD, but what else is a 72 year-old going to do with a PhD except get herself addressed, correctly, as ‘Doctor”? I completed the relevant form, my letter was photocopied and accepted as evidence by the branch manager. My accounts and relevant cards etc. would be changed accordingly. On Tuesday I had a phone call from the Halifax, addressing me as Dr Davies, pointing out that Head Office won’t accept my letter of authority, they need to see the actual certificate: that certificate I don’t have. As far as I knew on Tuesday, the letter WAS my authorisation; I heard later that day that the certificate will be sent to my home. So why, I ask you—and them—is a letter congratulating me on the award of Doctor of Philosophy, on MMU headed paper complete with the university crest, signed by the head of the faculty, not sufficient evidence for a change of title? It’s not as if I was depositing a huge amount of dirty money simultaneously with the change of title request. I just wanted to change ‘Mrs’ into ‘Dr’. Sometimes I think bureaucracy has overreached itself. A couple of decades ago, I moved in with my partner, Bill. I went into the Halifax to change the address on my accounts. I was told I couldn’t change the address without the evidence of the new address on a utility bill with my name on. Seems sensible, doesn’t it? Except I was moving in with Bill and all utility bills were in his name. I pointed this out, and that there would never be a utility bill at this address with my name on. I was told to ask Bill to write and sign a letter to say I was living with him, and bring that letter with said utility bill with HIS name on. Now, I’ve banked with the Halifax for more than thirty years; they didn’t know Bill from Adam, but it was acceptable to take his word over mine for my new address? Can’t rules be a little bit bendy in some specific situations? So now I await the arrival of the certificate, which I’ll take into the Halifax to change the title on my accounts. At least I’ll get to have lunch at Mowgli in the Manchester Exchange again, so upsides…

Last weekend, I was in Somerset visiting my younger son. It was his birthday on Monday so I stayed over an extra night to wish him happy birthday. We went out for lunch on Monday and I drove home on Monday afternoon. This week I’m writing from a hotel room in Cumbria: Rydal Hall between Ambleside and Grasmere. I’m on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. The carousel is a novel idea: there are four tutors: Kim Moore herself, joined this year by David Tait, Malika Booker and Clare Shaw. The course participants are put into groups of seven or eight and take turns to progress around the carousel, visiting each tutor in turn and completing four workshops over the course of the weekend. It’s a lovely way to spend a few days with friends. We arrived on Friday afternoon. When Hilary and I arrived, several of the course participants were here already, waiting in the foyer to be allocated their room keys. I know about three quarters of the participants from other Kim Moore courses I’ve attended. When we walked in through the hotel doors, Kim was sitting just inside the door with her baby Ally, her husband Chris and other poetry friends. I took a bow when they all clapped as I walked in, a congratulatory welcome for my PhD. It’s the little things…

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Starstruck at my welcome in Rydal Hall

After the welcome meeting we went to our first workshop. Hilary and I were with David Tait. David is originally from Lancaster, but is currently teaching in China. He did an MA Creative Writing from MMU at roughly the same time as Kim and me, so it was lovely to see him again. The workshop addressed ‘The Personable Political’ and gave us permission to write political poetry without being overt about it. It was ‘political’ with an upper or lower case ‘p’: carte blanche to rant if we wanted or to interpret the brief in any personally political way we chose. David always brings interesting and lesser known poetry prompts to his workshops. We spent a lovely two hours reading and writing poetry. Lovely jubbly. I don’t think I’ve anything worthwhile yet, but some of the stuff I wrote in that workshop is worth keeping to develop at my leisure; and although they are interesting political times we’re living through, I didn’t write anything time specific, so I can come back to it when I get home.

On Friday evening, after dinner, we had readings by two of the tutors: Kim and Malika read their poetry. Kim is doing a PhD from MMU at the moment, examining casual sexism in society and her reading was from the collection she’s writing for the creative element of her PhD. She is putting together a collection of poems about all the men she never married and they’re wonderful: funny and poignant and often discomfiting. Malika is working on a sequence adapting bible stories to the culture of her Jamaican heritage. It was a lovely evening, and a privilege to hear two wonderful poets share their work. After the readings Hilary and I gave up on the day: Hilary is recovering from a nasty cold virus; and Friday was my first day with it, so we took our snotty noses and chesty coughs to bed with a good greasing of Vicks Vapour Rub.

Yesterday, Saturday, day 2 of the carousel, Hilary and I attended the workshop run by Malika Booker. It addressed poetry performance, which she interpreted broadly to include all kinds of reading/performing to an audience. We’d been asked to take two poems to the workshop: one we’re happy to perform, that we’ve performed/read in public several times and one we are less comfortable to perform in public, that might be better considered a ‘page poem’. The workshop was fascinating. We spent time treating the first poem, the one we thought we were comfortable reading to an audience, as a performance script, making notes on words that were important but might get lost in the flow of speech at a reading. Mostly I found that for me, those were words that don’t carry huge meaning: ‘your’, ‘of’, ‘be’ etc. They don’t carry meaning for themselves but they add meaning to the words around them and shouldn’t get lost in the reading. We also considered who we were speaking to in reading the poem: a friend, a colleague, a parent? This affects the voice of the reader: you’ll read in a different voice if you are talking friend-to-friend than if you’re David Attenborough addressing an anonymous television audience. We considered where pauses occur for maximum effect: not just line breaks, but small pauses within the lines. Lastly we considered ‘physical metaphors’: how we can accentuate some lines of the poems with small actions of our hands/heads etc. When we read the poems to a partner after preparing the script, it was a different—and more effective—reading from the one we are used to giving. It’ll be interesting to apply these criteria to the second poem we took along, the one we avoid reading because it’s a challenge to perform. It was an interesting workshop, and made a change from writing. Lots to take away to think about and develop.

After lunch we decided to go out for a walk around the hotel grounds to get some fresh air and blow away a few cobwebs. The weather was wet: persistent rain and low cloud increasingly stealing the horizon. We walked around the garden and arrived at a shed called ‘The Grotto’. The door was unlocked. We went inside. Oh. My. Word. We weren’t expecting that! A large picture window in the furthest wall of the grotto revealed a magnificent waterfall that you wouldn’t have seen but for the grotto. The force in that tumbling water…! We considered diving into the pool for a wild swim, but to be fair, the thought lasted seconds. We sat on the window seat for some time, just watching the huge torrent and being amazed: you could feel the force through the structure of the Grotto. We walked back to the hotel by a different route, passing a lovely little coffee shop where we enjoyed a cappuccino before coming back to our room to do some work.

After dinner last night we had a guest reader. Roy McFarlane, a Jamaican-heritage poet from the midlands came to share his poetry with us. I first heard Roy read in Swindon in October and I knew we were in for a treat. He didn’t disappoint. He has a collection addressing the issue of deaths in custody. Each poem is titled with the name of a person who died in the custody of the police, the prison service, the mental health system. They are powerful and thought provoking: ‘personably political’ to use David Tait’s phrase. He lightened the mood somewhat by reading from a sequence about the city of a hundred languages, Birmingham, in which a Rastaman is in conversation with a writer. These poems are energetic and funny and entertaining. He closed with poems about his mother; moving poems: he was himself visibly moved in the reading of them. But for me, his best work is in his political ‘deaths in custody’ poems and his wonderful Rastaman sequence.

So, I’m having a creative time: poetry and the company of poets: what’s not to like. More of the same today and tomorrow before we go back to our real lives. As Malika Booker is one of the tutors, I’m going to sign off with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, which I submitted it to the Battered Moons poetry competition when Malika was the judge. She awarded it a ‘commendation’ in the competition and it earned me £25.00. The poem is called ‘Chiggypig’, a west country dialect word for the woodlouse. It considers all the things a woodlouse could aspire to be. We always called woodlice ‘piggies’ when I was a child, hence the last line of the poem, so I was grateful to Rosie Garland for giving me this gift of a title.

 

Chiggy Pig

nippy little armoured shuttle
tiny pellet for pocket pistol
milligram of medication
miniature isopod crustacean
tiny roll-top for tiny letter
curled up little grime diviner
micro-pebble from micro-gravel
miniscule ball-bearing marble
newly discovered little planet
dinky dust devouring gannet
Lilliputian city gent
mini-camper in sturdy tent
innocent mine-sweeping feeler
micro-robotic skirting creeper
armadillo impersonator
tiny fourteen jointed porker

 

Rachel Davies
2017

Knitted Surrealism

It’s official: on Thursday I had a letter attached to an email from MMU, addressed to Dr Rachel Davies, congratulating me on my achievement. I’ve been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. A hard copy of the letter is in the post. There, it’s in writing, it’s done; just the award ceremony to look forward to next July. I feel as if I want to show everyone the letter. I’ll definitely frame a copy for my study. Thursday was also the day I collected my personal copy of the completed thesis from the printers, published in black buckram, gold lettering, the MMU logo heading the cover. Thursday was a good day, a day of tying up loose ends.

Tuesday it was Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. I met Linda Boyles from Tameside before the meeting to discuss the group’s needs. She’s doing a research project into the development needs of arts groups in Tameside. I said we need some new members, otherwise we were doing quite well. She’s put me in touch with Jonathan King, who deals with Stalybridge and Mossley groups and will be my contact. Apparently, there are funding streams to be tapped. It would be good to have funds to invite visiting speakers, poets to run workshops etc; but public funds mean treasurers and committees and then it all gets a bit serious. I’ve been invited to ‘network’ with other groups in the area, so we’ll see what comes of that. We might get more members out of it. Anyway, Lin stayed to the group, joined in and had such a good time, she said she’ll come to our next meeting as a member in January. So already the express aim of increasing membership has been fulfilled.

We had a lovely meeting; and there were six of us there, with two apologies. We had a writing session this month. Three members had prepared writing prompts and we wrote to those prompts. My poetry twin, Hilary, had prepared one of the prompts; but she had also sent apologies, she has this nasty chesty virus that’s doing the rounds at the mo. I called at her house on the way to Stalybridge to collect her writing prompt to put to the group. She whispered her way through the instructions, no productive voice at all.

So, the writing prompts, if you want to give them a go:

Pat had brought lots of small samples of Fairisle knitting. She’s been working out the patterns for a jumper she wants to knit. So she’d attached these knitted pieces to paper, three or four in each sample. We had to use the samples to write: it could be about the samples themselves, about something the samples brought to mind, about knitting, the colours, the rhythm of knit one purl one. I had four small squares of patterns in various colours and I imagined them being tabards for tiny medieval knights. It’s a bit surreal, but I think I can work on it. I can’t tell you how nice it is to write something that doesn’t involve mothers and daughters.

Fokkina brought an activity that concentrated on the long poem. She’d recently been for a week at the Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales where Andrew McMIllan had used a long poem of Louise Gluck’s to inspire writing. This was the activity that Fokkina brought to Stanza: you cut a short section from a long poem, then cut a second section from the poem a bit further along. The sections each only need to be three or four lines long. Then write the gap between the two sections into a poem of your own making. It’s better not to read the entire original poem, I’m guessing, because you are not trying to reconstruct the published poem, but to use the pieces to inspire a longer poem of your own. It was hard, but worthwhile. We all produced work that was worth a read. I’ll definitely try the activity again on my own. How about a long poem of the romantic era, for instance The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner or The Lady of Shalott? Choose a poem you don’t know well, though, because remember you’re not trying to rewrite the original but to use it to inspire work of your own.

The third activity was Hilary’s, which I presented to the group. Hilary had cut up an old Codeword book, the puzzles completed. We took two puzzles each and wrote down four words from each grid onto pieces of paper. These lists included easyish words like ‘simple’ or ‘apple’. But there were more challenging words like ‘sasquatch’ or ‘bivouac’. The lists were folded up and placed in the bag. Then a pack of picture cards: pick a card, any card. We dipped into the bag for two sets of words to work with, and these formed an eight-line poem inspired by the picture card. Each line must contain one of the words. It was very random, and made for surprising, surreal poems. I’m including my attempt at this activity at the end of the blog: only because I wrote it up the next day to thank Hilary for the activity, to tell her how much we enjoyed it, and to cheer her up in her laryngitis.

On Friday I drove to Somerset to see my younger son, Michael. It’s his birthday on Monday, so Amie, Angus, the Cockerpoos, Richard, Bill and I all came to celebrate his birthday with him. I’ve never visited his home in Somerset, and I have this anxiety thing where I need to be able to visualise my children in their homes. They feel closer that way. If all I can manage is picturing them ‘somewhere out there’ it doesn’t quite feel real. So now I can picture him ‘somewhere real’ when he’s in Somerset and I’m in Saddleworth. It took about six hours to drive here: it’s a four-and-a-quarter hour journey according to Google maps; but that doesn’t allow for the M6-M5 intersection; and we did stop for about forty-five minutes for lunch en route. I think Amie and Richard are going home today, but I might stay for another night so I can spend some of his birthday with him. The December night he was born was thick, thick Fenland fog. I think it’ll be a bit brighter but considerably colder this year.

Anyway, here’s my ‘poem’ from Hilary’s surreal activity. I think it might be nominated for some prestigious poetry prize in 2020, what do you think? Best individual poem at the Forwards? Anyway, this is the photo card I picked at random from the pack:

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The two lists of words I picked from the bag contained  ‘oxen, amok, identical, bivouac, adieu, yelps, retch and toupee’. Here’s my eight-line poem using the picture and words as stimuli:

Puppet

I was formed from the horns of oxen.
The carpenter ran amok with the sander,
each limb identical to its mirror. This velvet chair
is my bivouac. Alopecia is a burden.
I’ve watched the barber retch to shampoo
the toupee that slips from my cranial dome.
And so I cry adieu cruel world, my voice
a prairie dog’s yelps.

Rachel Davies
November 2019

Everyday I Promise Myself

By far the best thing to happen to me this week: I heard on Monday that 4word Publishing have chosen my pamphlet Everyday I Promise Myself from their shortlist as one of the four they will publish next year. My lovely book will be published on 1st December 2020. It seems a long time to wait, but the pamphlets are beautiful and take time to put together. I have to write a preface for the book to give a context for the poems. I have to prepare an acknowledgements page to highlight any previous publication history for the poems. I have to prepare a dedication page: I will be dedicating my pamphlet to my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, who has given me valuable feedback on the poems when they were included in my PhD thesis, when they were first drafts in the various writing workshops we’ve attended together. I have to get two or three endorsements for the poems from professional poets for the back cover of the book. I have to write an author biography with photograph. I’ll leave the photo until after I collect my lovely new specs on Tuesday this week. Alongside all this is the process of working with the editors, Stella Wulf and Lesley Quayle to finalise the manuscript and cover. I’m learning that the publication of a book is a long-term project, and 4word’s pamphlets are works of art. You can see for yourself here: http://www.4word.org/titles/

I had to reregister at MMU this week. I’d assumed registration was a thing of the past now the PhD is finally submitted, but no, I need to register so they can keep me informed of graduation ceremonies etc. The good news is, my tuition is free for this year, as it should be every year in my opinion. The fact I won’t be receiving any tuition is almost irrelevant, I’m registered for free university education. I paid a bill of £0.00. I am having free-to-me university education for the first time since my employers, Tameside, paid for my MSc in Education Management in the 1990s.

This has been a week of Poets&Players activity. On Sunday we had a committee meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery to discuss planning for next year, roles and responsibilities within the group and other organisational issues. We met over lunch in the Whitworth café. Janet, out group co-ordinator, is in the process of putting together the Arts Council bid again for next year’s funding: this is always a tense time of year. We rely on the funding to make our high-quality events at the Whitworth free to our audiences. We supplement our income by organising morning workshops on the day of our events, usually led by our headline poets. You can see our upcoming events here: https://poetsandplayers.co where you’ll also find details of our next competition, which opened this week. Our judge this time is Sinead Morrisey, so what are you waiting for? Get your pens and notebooks out, get writing!

Yesterday was our last Poets & Players event of 2019, in the wonderful Whitworth South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park, where green parakeets skitter among the trees and squirrels were busy squirreling food for the winter. Music was provided by Ask My Bull, an ‘instrumental flamboyant jazz punk band’, as they describe themselves. They are not wrong. Our poets yesterday were Lauren Garland, an MMU Creative Writing MA student who won second place in last year’s P&P competition; Joe Dunthorne, who was absolutely wonderful and exciting; so exciting that I bought his latest collection, O Positive, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t buy any more poetry books until I’d cleared the reading pile on my desk. Mimi Kalvati was our headline poet at this event. She read from her new collection Afterwardness,which addresses her leaving her native Iran for the UK at the age of six. This is a collection of Petrarchan sonnets, with hauntingly subtle rhymes. It was a good reading; and a wonderful event. It was a collaboration with Manchester based publishers Carcanet Press, to celebrate their 50th birthday. The workshop in the morning was run by Michael Schmidt, founder-editor of Carcanet. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a place on the workshop this time, but Hilary did and I expect to hear all about it from her in due course. Feedback about the workshop from poets at lunch in the Whitworth café was all very positive. Our next workshop is with Jo Shapcott on January 25th, Burns Night; details on our website, https://poetsandplayers.co

I’m going to leave you with my poem ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ this week. I wrote it on Kim Moore’s carousel last December, and I’ll be going to this year’s carousel in a couple of weeks. I can’t remember the prompt for the poem, but I remember reading it to the group. I explained that Rhona was side-show at the fair. I went with my children. We wandered into the tent where Rhona sat stirring up some half dazed rats with a long bone. Kim and other course members said I was making it up, so I asked on Facebook if anyone had heard of Rhona the Ratgirl. I had one response, from my daughter Amie. It seemed we were the only people in the world who remember Rhona; except for one other Facebook friend who said ‘I think I dated her once’, but I assumed he was joking. However, when I googled ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ I found reference to her in this link, proof that she was real:https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/what-are-your-memories-of-norwich-s-easter-fair-1-4475476

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my surprise at finding definitive proof of Rhona!

So, here’s Rhona. I wanted to name my pamphlet after Rhona but Hilary said the advice from her MA tutor had been to be wary of naming a collection after one poem, because that poem has a huge weight of responsibility. She suggested taking one line from the poem as my title, and suggested the last line ‘Everyday I promise myself’ as a possibility. So that’s where my pamphlet title comes from; and it recognises the historic and cultural importance of Rhona, who may well have been forgotten forever if it wasn’t for this memorial poem. She deserves to be remembered, she is one of my personal favourite ‘alternative mothers’. ‘That kid…’ in the poem is Amie: how we learn stuff about our children only after they’re grown ups!

 

Alternative Mother #10
Rhona the Ratgirl

and is your entire world
this pen in this tent
this animal skin
this thigh bone
these rats?
So where do I fit in?

You recline on a bale of straw
draped in that mangy leopard skin
in a distant approximation to sexy,
while the public comes in to oggle.

You stir the somnambulant rats
with a Brontosaurus thigh bone—
like everything about you, it’s fake.

Of course the rats are too
out of it on benzodiazepines
to move around much.

When that kid tittered at your tits
all you said was You’re supposed to be
looking at me rats.
Well, what did you expect—an Oscar?

The ambition it must have taken for you
to become the Ratgirl, Rhona.

Every day I promise myself…

Rachel Davies
December 2018

 

Tick boxes and paper nautiluses

On Sunday, November 10th 2019 I resubmitted my ‘signed off’ thesis to the University. The ETHoS form proved problematic: the tick-boxes on the form wouldn’t accept ticks electronically. I printed it off, ticked it, signed it, took a photo on my iPad and submitted it with the exit form and the thesis. I also had to submit a copy of the title page and abstract separately, which took time to prepare in line with the University’s preferred style and saved in PDF. Done. My certificate will be with me in weeks. I’d thought to share the morning with some of the final paperwork from the Black Ladd, but it took me all morning to submit the thesis and it’s extras, so the paperwork went on the back burner until Monday. After all, I have all the time in the world now.

On Monday evening I went into Manchester with Hilary Robinson for the latest—the sixth—in the series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal. Moira Egan’s lecture on Marianne Moore was as good as the rest: interesting and engaging. Egan, an American poet who went to the same college as Moore had attended, drew parallels between her life and Moore’s. The lecture was entitled ‘Marianne Moore: not so timorous wee beasties’. Ex-laureate Carol Ann Duffy introduced the evening and she admitted that she had read Moore several times, but never quite understood her; so I felt better then. I don’t know Moore’s work well but she is difficult to get a handle on; except one poem that I love and which Egan included in her lecture: ‘The Paper Nautilus’, which is a wonderful description of a type of octopus and its beautiful egg case . You can find a copy of the poem here:

https://poets.org/poem/paper-nautilus

and here’s a photo I found on wiki-images of the shell, the egg case, of the nautilus:

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the paper nautilus, egg case.
The human hand is an indicator of size

It was a lovely evening, although the weather was foul: heavy rain and flooding across the Pennines had kept several people away; and being a Monday evening, perhaps, it wasn’t as well attended as some of the previous lectures. But we met up with several poetry friends, and I’m glad I went. I have the complete set of lecture notes for the series; and CAD announced another proposed series in the near future, so that’s good. I’ll keep you posted when I hear anything definite.

The best thing that happened on Tuesday was that Rosie Parker was discharged from the vets after her recent dental treatment—hurray! She has to go back every four months to make sure her teeth continue to resist the autoimmune attack. ‘Would Rosie let you brush her teeth?’ the dental nurse asked me. Ha! There are days Rosie is disdainful even of a loving stroke! The chances of me getting close to the inside of her mouth with a toothbrush are slim-to-none. So I’m to keep giving her the dental formula biscuits and we’ll keep a close watch on developments.

On Wednesday I heard from Deborah at MMU that the photographed ETHoS form wasn’t acceptable, could I resubmit online? And the title page and abstract needed to be in two separate documents, not the one I’d prepared and submitted. Aaargh! Is there on end to it? But at 3.00 a.m. on Thursday I had an idea of how I could insert ticks into the tick-boxes on the ETHoS form; so I got my MacBook out there and then and tried. Behold! It worked. Actually, it worked better than I expected. My idea was to delete the tick-box wingding and insert an asterisk to denote my tick. But when I deleted the tick-box, an asterisk appeared automatically. So I spent some time making two discrete docs of the title page and abstract and sent it all off again before breakfast. My certificate could be with me by the end of November, I’ve been told.

Yesterday, Saturday, I met Hilary at the Metrolink tramstop at Derker in Oldham and we went into Manchester for the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. I love these writing days with Peter Sansom, he’s such a lovely man, and possibly ‘the best teacher of creative writing in the country’ according to Sian Hughes in the Gaurdian. He’s certainly one of them: engaging, and well prepared, in a chaotic sort of way. He brings excellent poems as prompts, and he brings biscuits: lots of biscuits! We wrote to prompts in a room disrupted by repairs to the fabric of the building, so we competed with loud drilling and hammering noise; and we were sent out into the gallery to find poems among the works of art. That’s my favourite part of these writing days, which has surprised me, because I’ve always shied away from ekphrasis as a stimulation for poems; but I have several poems in my thesis collection that came from works of art, and I wrote another one yesterday, which I’m quite excited about. I came home with about four poems that might make something of themselves eventually.

I’m cutting it a bit short this week because I have to go into Manchester again later this morning for a meeting of the Poets & Players organising committee at the Whitworth Art Gallery, so I’d better get a schlepp on, as my friend Joan would say. I’ll leave you with an alternative mother poem, I think. She’s one of four ‘alternative mothers’ included this month in the online journal, Writers’ Café: Masks edition. You can read them all, and other poems obviously, here: https://thewriterscafemagazine.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/the-writers-cafe-magazine-issue-17-masks/

The world, meet Cynthia:

Alternative Mother #7
Cynthia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies
2018

A Metaphor For Endings

Later today, I’ll be making the final submission of my thesis to the University, with all the attendant proformas completed. So I can truly say, using that old cliché, that tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life. It’s strange how that has simultaneously become the situation in another area of my life too: Amie successfully sold her business at the Black Ladd this week, in order to buy a fish and chip shop in partnership with her sister-in-law. So the volunteering job I’ve had for more than twelve years, doing her books for her, is now redundant. What will I do with all my extra free time?

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            contemplating future goals

Really, this week has been taken over by the hand-over of the business to the new proprietors. I’ve been passing on my (very limited) knowledge of ‘doing the books’; seeking out invoices and other relevant information to help them get started with suppliers; handing over the several Excel spreadsheets I’ve designed to help me with VAT, casual wages etc.; passing on complements slips, gift vouchers etc. that are only relevant to the Black Ladd business. I’ll be sad, but strangely relieved, not to be needing these things again. It’s been a hugely successful business, started just before the turmoil of the 2008 financial crash. When restaurants and pubs were forced to the wall in their droves, Amie’s vision of good home cooking and simple hospitality ensured her survival. She’s also survived the personal trauma of serious illness thanks to the wonderfully supportive team she’d built up and so now the time is right to take on a business which will, hopefully be less demanding, with a partner who’s also a close friend. Obviously, I wish them huge good luck and continuing good health. Yesterday, Bill and I spent the day at the Black Ladd, clearing Amie out of the office to make room for the new regime. We had four shredders on the go, dispatching old invoices etc. A shredder is a metaphor for endings; but also, I think, for new beginnings.

In other news, this week I finished reading Katie Hale’s debut novel My name is Monster (Canongate, 2019). I met Katie a few years ago at one of Kim Moore’s writing weekends in Cumbria, and know her as a very good young poet: last year she was shortlisted in the  prestigious Manchester Poetry Prize. So when I heard she’d published a novel I was hooked and wanted to read it. I won’t give any spoiler alerts, but I will say it’s a dystopian novel about the last human survivor of Armageddon: there has been nuclear war and ‘the sickness’, which is hinted at as the result of bacterial warfare that has killed the world’s population. The book begins with one woman, christened Monster by her father, as the sole survivor. Her given name brings to mind Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ in Mary Shelley’s astounding and wonderful book, that part where he’s wandering the world to escape from Frankenstein who wants to destroy him. I must admit, when I began reading Katie Hale’s novel I did wonder how she would make a whole novel of one woman’s survival, but she does and it’s a really good read. In terms of the plot, there are probably huge loopholes and ambiguities for a scientist reading it; but I’m not a scientist. I read for entertainment; and I was entertained. And having recently finished Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, I was enthralled and disturbed by a different version of a frightening dystopia. I need to find something a little less frightening, a little more uplifting to read I think. I’ve started to read a William Boyd novel now, Waiting for Sunrise (Bloomsbury Press, 2012). I’ve never been disappointed by William Boyd, so I have high hopes for this one, set in Vienna at the start of the First World War. I’ll keep you posted.

Knowing there will be official forms to complete, I’ve been keeping a close eye on my MMU emails this week for news of the system for resubmission of the thesis. On Tuesday I logged in only to be told I needed to change my password. This is an annual event but this year it seemed spurious as I’m so close to the end of my need for the password. None-the-less, I didn’t want to be locked out of my account at this crucial stage, so I obliged. I stayed with the Apple generated password as I knew I wouldn’t need it for long and my MacBook would remember it for me. Unfortunately, when I tried to log on again with my new password, MMU wasn’t having any of it. I couldn’t get in! I clicked on the ‘forgotten your password’ link hoping to be able to change the password to something I would remember for myself; but on clicking the link I was advised to contact the student hub. Aaaagh! computers and digital technology are wonderful when they work for you, but when it all goes pear-shaped… On Thursday I was going into Manchester anyway, so I decided to go earlier than planned so that I could visit the student hub at All Saints campus, Geoffrey Manton building. I successfully changed my password with the hub staff’s help, and now have a password I can remember without any help from my petulant MacBook. The email about re-submission eventually came through on Friday, with me wondering how I was ever going to find time to resubmit amidst all the turmoil of the business handover. I decided I need to concentrate on the pressing nature of the handover. I did take time to read through the thesis to make sure there aren’t any typos etc—I found a couple—and it’s good to go later this morning.

I was really in Manchester on Thursday for the People’s Poetry Lecture. I met up with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, in the Refuge Bar at the Principal. The lectures are in an upstairs room. This is a brilliant series of lectures to appeal to poets and non-poets alike; and they have been really high quality events, contemporary poets presenting poets who have inspired them on personal and professional levels. On Thursday the lecture was presented by Jean Sprackland; her subject was Elizabeth Bishop, a favourite poet of mine as well. The theme of Jean’s lecture was Bishop’s feeling of ‘unbelonging’ following a traumatic childhood in which her father died, her mother was incarcerated in a mental hospital where she subsequently died, all happening when Bishop was a young girl.  She never saw her mother again after the incarceration and as a result Bishop was uprooted from a home and family where she felt loved and secure to relocate with her father’s family, where she wasn’t happy. Jean gave a convincing account of how this traumatic phase of her life gave rise to the feeling of not belonging anywhere, a recurring theme in Bishop’s poetry and personal letters. It was another excellent lecture; and it was good to see Jean and lots of other poetry friends there. Hilary and I shared the lift with Carol Ann Duffy, who joked she was sharing the lift with ‘the PhD people’. I pointed out that she was sharing the lift with ex-PhD people and she called me Dr Davies. It’s the little things…There’s another ‘people’s lecture’ tomorrow evening, if you want to give it a go; Moira Egan on Marianne Moore: http://www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events/the-peoples-poetry-lectures-moira-egan-on-marianne-moore

I can’t wait.

So that’s it, another week with lots going on. We’ve had fireworks night this week, which this year feels like a metaphor for the state of the political climate. One week into an election campaign marked by lies, damn lies and (misinterpreted) statistics; scurrilous misinformation; cruel and insensitive posturing; and already I’m wondering when Guido Fawkes is going to resurrect himself and come back to save the day? So I’m going to leave you with a ‘remember, remember’ poem about the only fireworks party we were ever allowed in my childhood. I think I was about nine on this particular November 5th:

 

All The Excuse You Needed

You tell us horror stories from your life as a nurse
but we grind you down slowly until at last you give in.
We go with dad to Ken Harker’s, choose our legal bombs.
We waited years for the velvety darkness of this Fenland night.

Excited, we tie Guy Fawkes to the stake then
light the bonfire we’ve been building for weeks,
chuck scrubbed potatoes into the flames, hold mugs
of piping hot soup in gloved hands. Our eyes soar

into a universe reformed by a super-cluster of new galaxies
from that first rocket. But of course, dad knows better
than the Fireworks Code,  spurns the tight lidded biscuit tin,
cuts the safe distance from the blaze, lights blue touch-papers

without retiring. Do you actually see that fire imp jump
the short arc from blaze to fireworks box?  Our fireworks all
go up together, the spectacular display a symphony
of terrifying booms and whistles and we miss it all,

that constellation of colour, its spinning wheels, its horizontal
rockets, its jumping jacks because we turn our backs,
run for our lives. From this day forward, we’ll wonder
what those fireworks might have looked like  because

this is all the excuse you needed.

 

Rachel Davies
2016

A Puck of a week…

The best news first: on Friday I heard from Dr Hurley that my revisions have been accepted and the thesis has been signed off. I am officially Dr Davies, fully and without the reservation of the revisions, and the award will be backdated to the date of the viva: 6th September. I have to resubmit the revised thesis as soon as the examiners have informed MMU of the decision, then my certificate will arrive. The graduation next July is an opportunity for the university to congratulate me. Woo hoo! PhD is behind me, a thing of the past, an ex-worry! Bill and I shared bubbles to celebrate.

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In other news, last Sunday I went with Hilary and friends to see Margaret Atwood at the Lowry theatre. She was ‘in conversation’ with the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak. It was a splendid event: Atwood is days away from her 80th birthday, with a mind as sharp as pins; she has lost none of her political fight. The first half of the event involved her talking about the relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments to modern society. Shafak talked of how women writers are repressed in her native Turkey, and so the books resonated with her. You only have to keep up to date with right-wing news in the USA or the UK to see how close we live to Gilead. I read of an American woman charged with manslaughter because she was shot in the stomach and her unborn baby died. She should have taken steps to protect the child. Her attacker wasn’t charged: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-48789836

Or ‘pro-life’ politicians who make spurious claims about rape and abortion: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/02/idaho-lawmaker-still-thinks-rape-cant-result-pregnancy-and-its-2016/

The right-wing in the UK is not better; Gilead, Atwood’s dystopia, is just around the next corner. After an interval there was a question and answer session with tweeted questions from the audience. The most memorable response in this session was Atwood’s claim that people get complacent as they get older, that the elderly sit back and leave protesting to the young. We mustn’t; if we disagree with something, we should speak out, she said: if we feel something’s wrong we shouldn’t just ignore it, put up with it. I’m sharing even more anti-Brexit stuff on social media now; and doing my best to challenge right-wing propaganda wherever I find it in the lead-up to the December election. We live in a frightening world: who knows where we’re heading?

A final word about the theatre event: why do audiences not know how to behave any more? People were coming and going during the two sessions, talking among themselves, rustling huge bags of sweets and popcorn. Phones were switched off, but vibrations for texts were answered so that screens lit up, detracting attention from the stage. Why can’t folk just sit down and shut up for the hour or so of a performance?

On Tuesday it was Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. We had an anonymous workshop this month: members send me poems they would appreciate feedback on; I put them all into one document, standard font and format, and send them out prior to the meeting for people to read and comment. We had six members in attendance, including one new member, and three apologies, so I think we’re off the endangered list. It was a very good meeting with some cracking poems. I took a poem I wrote at Peter Sansom’s workshop in Manchester Art Gallery a couple of Saturdays ago. I received good feedback, they liked the poem. I’ve since turned it into an alternative mother. One poem addressed the 39 Vietnamese migrants who died in the refrigerated container lorry. It was a very good treatment of the subject, from the angle of ‘hidden things’. We advised her to send it to the Morning Star for consideration. They publish political poetry. I wonder if she will?

On Wednesday I spent the morning putting a pamphlet together of some of my PhD poems. I heard at the end of the previous week that Hilary and I have both been shortlisted in the 4word pamphlet call-out. We had to send six poems initially; the email informing us of the shortlist requested 29-32 poems, so quite a substantial pamphlet. I decided which poems to include: 12 alternative mothers and twenty others. I printed them all out and spread them across the study floor to arrange and rearrange their order in the collection. I took out a couple and replaced them with other poems that seemed to fit better. It’s a long and precise process: if you want your pamphlet to be one of the ones that gets noticed you have to try your best to make it stand-out. I put them all together in a binder, and in a document on the MacBook, and left them for a day, then emailed the pamphlet file to Hilary. We’d agreed to meet on Friday in Caffé Abaco in Uppermill to feedback to each other on our pamphlets. Of course, we know each other’s poems fairly well from all the readings we do together; but it was interesting to see the poems as a collection, it raised issues that aren’t issues when they are individual poems: phrases repeated  across a couple of poems, for instance, are not an issue while they’re individual poems but are noticeable when the poems are relatively close to each other in a collection. It was a useful session. On Saturday, after watching the Rugby World Cup Final, I came up to my study and revisited the poems in line with Hilary’s feedback and then I pressed ‘send’ on the email. They’ve gone now for better or worse. I really hope they demand the editors’ attention. Good luck to us both.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to the Printworks in Manchester for the live screening of National Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Oh. My. Word. How brilliant was that? I love the play anyway, but this production was the stand-out one for me. The play was broadcast from the Bridge Theatre in London. It was performed in the round, but more than that, it was immersive theatre, so the audience was an integral part of the show, drawn-in in all sorts of ways. Puck in particular had a good rapport with the audience. The actor who played Puck, David Moorst, was brilliant. The fairies in the play ‘flew’ on fabric trapezes. They were all acrobats as well as actors, and the effect was stunning. Puck was a contortionist I think, getting himself into all kinds of surprising shapes in his trapeze. I loved it. Hytner had transposed aspects of the roles of Titania (Gwendoline Christie) and Oberon (Oliver Chris) in his play, so that it was Oberon, king of the fairies who received the love potion from Titania the fairy queen; so that proud Oberon fell in love with Bottom the weaver, transformed into a donkey. The gender reversal in Macbeth a couple of weeks ago really didn’t work for me, but here it was brilliant; it brought a new dimension to the play, added to the comedy, and brought proud Oberon, and his human counterpart, Duke Theseus, down a peg or two. Oh my, it was a wonderful way to spend an evening. I just wish I could go to London to see the play in the theatre now; but a live screening is definitely the next best thing.

And there you have it: my week in words: a wonderful and rewarding week overall. I can stop stressing now about PhD, thesis, revisions and just put it all behind me. Of course, I intend to keep celebrating for as long as it takes, but that’s the good part. The stress and angst are things of the past. I’ll leave you with the poem I took to Stanza. I don’t see me sending it out to journals as an individual poem, and submission to pamphlets allows for previously published poems, so I can post it here. I think it’s self-evident who it’s about and it deals with the way women have been hidden by their history in a world belonging to men. Enjoy.

Alternative Mother #1
Naamah, daughter of Lamech

you trim the timbers       soak them
bend them over boulders
dry them       in the sun
hammer and hammer       a row boat
a racing yacht       an ocean going ship

he says you need to       says why don’t you
says if you did it like this       says it’ll never
says more tar more tar       says what’s for tea

You keep trimming       shaping       planing
sanding       hammering       tarring       trimming
on and on

he says it won’t      says that zoo can’t
says the big cats will eat the
says but the elephants       says the rhinos might
says what if the snakes

You build steps       a ramp       channel your inner
farmhand       herd the animals       in pairs

he puts the finishing touches to the paintwork
paints on his own trademark in letters two cubits high

and we all forget your name

Rachel Davies
October 2019

All Quiet on the PhD front

I’ve had a quiet week by my standards. I’ve had no news on the ‘minor revisions’: is ‘no news good news’? I’m becoming obsessive about checking my emails just in case. I tell myself the email will come when it gets sent, but it’s hard waiting. Is my brainchild mature enough to stand on her own two feet and go out and claim a place in the world?

I spent Sunday morning putting poems from Saturday’s Poetry Business workshop onto the MacBook. I did a bit of tweaking: form, stanza length, line length etc. I’m quite pleased with them.  Two of the poems I wrote up are based on pieces of art work, I seem to be getting a lot of poems from art lately, which is unusual for me. There’s a whole rich harvest there, perhaps. So far my ekphrastic poems are close responses to the art work: I admire people who go beyond the art work to make a world of their own, build personalities for the men and women in the pictures etc, write the harvest for that piece of fruit in the still life. I’m not there yet. But I’m pleased with what I wrote on Sunday morning. I might take my notebook to the Gallery for the day soon, see what I come back with; a day of trying out ekphrasis, with lunch in the middle.

Tuesday I had to take Rosie Parker to the vet again for a post-op check. We actually got her there on time for her appointment. The veterinary nurse was pleased with her progress, her gums are healing well. I have to keep giving her the meds and take her back next Tuesday. Aaagh! I hoped this would be the end of it. Oh my word, the trauma of the pet carrier: my trauma, not hers! And she’s costing me a fortune in cream to hide her meds in. She’s worth it though.

When I got home from the vets, and Rosie had hidden herself for protection under the futon in my study, I decided to do some work around submitting. I ordered a desk calendar pad for 2020. I write in the deadlines for submission call-outs, with notes of the various submission guidelines. Then if I miss a deadline I’ve only myself to blame. I looked for some submission opportunities that are open at the moment. I found a string of opportunities for all genres in Mxlexia: https://mslexia.co.uk/submit-your-work/  Mslexia is a magazine for women, redressing the historic side-lining of women writers in history. I realise some male writers get upset by Mslexia, but having studied this side-lining a little in my PhD, and having found anthologies which contain more male poets called ‘Thomas’ than women poets altogether, I see where Mslexia is coming from. Anyway, I sent one of my poems from Saturday’s art gallery workshop to their ‘love poetry’ call out. It’s a very tongue in cheek poem about growing older. It’s really too young to be out on it’s own, but who knows—many times your children surprise you, don’t they? Anyway, it’s gone. On Tuesday afternoon I met my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson in Café Abaco in Uppermill for a catch-up before going across the road for a hair appointment that I had to rearrange to accommodate Rosie’s visit to the vet. That’s how much I love her!

Wednesday was flu jab day. We go to the Well Pharmacy in Uppermill. Mr Johnson, the pharmacist, is really the kindest, most gentle man; and no appointment necessary, just an NHS form to fill in. We were in and out in five minutes, and next door to Abaco for coffee.

Thursday was the most productive day for poetry this week. Firstly, my copies of Well, Dam!: poems for parched times (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2019) arrived in the post. My Whittlesey Wash poem, the one I wrote about on this blog in the summer, is in the anthology, along with a hundred other very good poems, all about various ways in which humans have exploited—used and abused—the waters of the planet. Added to that, I had an email from 4word publishers telling me I’ve been shortlisted in their poetry pamphlet submission call-out. I found out about it when Hilary asked me if I’d had an email from them; because, guess what, my poetry twin is also on the shortlist. 4word only publish four pamphlets a year, so it’s good to be on the shortlist, although I don’t know how many poets altogether are on there. But Hilary and I are on there. I spent Saturday putting together the thirty or so poems that will comprise my pamphlet if it is chosen as one of the four. Hilary and I are planning to get together to look over each other’s pamphlets prior to sending them off: we still have to drink the bottle of champagne we won in the Nantwich poetry quiz, so this will be a good excuse to do that. We have a couple of weeks to get the pamphlets in to the publishers. Wish us both well.

On Friday I went to Peterborough with my daughter, Amie to meet up with son Richard and friends. We had a lovely day, as we always do when we get together. Richard made me a set of ‘memoji’ as my iPhone and iPad are too old and incapable of making their own. Mine are enormous, but I love them:

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In other news, I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to Handmaid’s Tale this week. The Testaments (London: Vintage Books 2019) is a wonderful sequel. It took me about five chapters to realise how she is writing it: a multiple-voiced account of the collapse of Gilead. I want to go back and read it again now I’ve finished it, to see if I missed anything while I was working it out. It really is a good read, a worthy follow-up to the masterpiece that is Handmaid’s Tale, which was an iconic feminist text long before the TV adaptation. Earlier this week, Atwood was announced as joint Booker Prize winner for The Testaments, along with Bernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (London: Penguin, 2019). Later today I’ll be going with Hilary, her sister and some friends to see Margaret Atwood ‘in conversation’ at the Lowry Theatre in Salford. Unfortunately, there won’t be a book signing, but there will be Margaret Atwood, and that’s enough for anyone. I can’t wait.

I’m going to leave you with my Whittlesey Wash poem, as it appears in Well, Dam! If you want a copy of the anthology, let me know, or contact the publisher, Rebecca Bilkau: beautifuldragons@icloud.com

Pollarded Willows On Whittlesey Wash Road                     

I’m a child riding in dad’s car along the B1040
Whittlesey Wash road from Thorney,
past the Dog in a Doublet where dad says
he was born in an upstairs room.
His birth story lessens the anxiety I always feel
riding along the B1040, where the land is too vast,
seeming to stretch forever across flat wetlands
grid-patterned with dykes, drains, fenland droves.
The knotty willows—I think they own this road—
shake their arthritic fists at me for the trespass.
I don’t want to provoke them, won’t look,
keep my eyes on the back of dad’s head,

I’m an adult driving the B1040 from Thorney
to Whittlesey, past the Dog in a Doublet where
I imagine Grandma upstairs pushing out my Dad.
The meadows are not as extensive as I remember,
I’ve grown into their vastness. They glisten
under a skin of water from last week’s rain, showing
who really owns this road is not the belligerent willows
but the North Sea; it was stolen from her and she
can reclaim it on a whim.
A file of pylons marching confidently across the landscape
must have been here when I was a child but the wind turbines
are new, harvesting the east wind that sweeps
from the Urals across Northern Europe’s flat landscape.

The curmudgeonly willows have grown dreadlocks,
become rastatrees, reggae tributes—the lifestyle change
is too much for some, they’re falling under the weight
of foliage; some are already wrecks on the sea bed.
As I pass, the ones still standing nod a dour greeting,
extend twiggy fists like paupers, reminding me
of the half-crown Aunt Mary would tuck into my hand,
the sweet tea she served in grown up cups and saucers,
blue as a clear sky and willow patterned.

Rachel Davies
August 2019

 

Siren Song

When I took early retirement, I had no idea that there was a whole world of poetry out there just waiting to be explored. I wanted to write, I knew that much, but I planned to write a book, a semi-fictional account of a failed work relationship. However, every time I put word processor to paper, it came out as a poem. I fell into poetry as I have fallen into all the very best parts of my life: parenthood, teaching; even retirement. I have lived a great poetry week again this week.

On Sunday I was at my desk by 9.00 a.m., ably supported by my personal assistant, Rosie Parker. She loves to sit on the desk when I’m working, so I have to keep moving the MacBook to the side to accommodate her until I find myself working with the MacBook on my knee while she takes over the desk. Cats, eh! Anyway, I put the finishing touches to the ‘minor revisions’, checked through Dr Hurley’s copy of the thesis with her comments and suggestions, to make sure I’d addressed all the most pressing—those marked with a green asterisk. I checked again, then went on the MMU website to fill out the relevant form on Skillsforge to accompany submission of the revisions for assessment. At midday I emailed the thesis off to Dr Hurley and Prof. Michael Symmons Roberts for approval. There: done! I have had an acknowledgement of receipt but nothing more yet. I’m expecting to hear this week. I love it dearly, but I want it out of my life!

On Sunday evening I took the tram to Manchester, walked along Oxford Road to the Royal Northern College of Music to meet up with Hilary. We were there for a Manchester Literature Festival event: Poet Laureate Simon Armitage in conversation with Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow. It was a lovely relaxed evening: Simon and Guy have been friends for about fifteen years, so it was a bit like looking in through the living room window while they did ‘friendship’. A host from Manchester Litfest asked the occasional question to bring them back to the theatre. There was chat, there were readings from Simon, there were songs from Guy. Simon even taught Guy, the singer, how to use a microphone! There was a book signing afterwards. I bought Simon’s latest collection, a bringing together of disparate commissioned pieces: Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic (London: Faber & Faber, 2019). Simon was one of my tutors on the MA Creative Writing at MMU back in 2007-10 and it was lovely that he remembered me as he signed my book. I went home a happy lady and added it to my ‘to read’ pile.

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Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage signing my book, 13.10.19

For the past five years, Tuesday has been one of the days I’ve dedicated to PhD work. This Tuesday I really missed it; it felt odd not having it to do. I haven’t felt that post-study bereavement so strongly all summer. Perhaps it’s a portent that the work is indeed finished. I gave myself a good talking to and decided to do what I’ve done all summer, and throw myself into some housework. I still have some of the post-PhD Big Spring Clean to complete. I hate housework, but it is filling the gap left by the thesis, this weird form of empty-nest.

On Wednesday I had to take Rosie Parker back to the vet for two more extractions. She has an autoimmune disease that attacks her teeth below the gum-line. About four weeks ago she had several teeth removed. The scarcity of teeth she had left meant that two sharp teeth in the upper gum were piercing her lower gum, leaving them very sore; so on Wednesday she had those removed as well. Poor thing, I hope that’ll be the end of it now. I have to take her back for a post-op check on Tuesday, but she seems fine, racing round the house with Jimbobs and generally doing what a young cat normally does. I’ve discovered that I can get medication into her if I can put it into a small saucer of cream, so I’m confident that she’s taking it. Spoilt? Rosie Parker? No way!

On Wednesday afternoon we had the log burner in the lounge taken out in prep for the chimney sweep coming on Thursday. A couple of bags of nesting material came out of the chimney, loads of twigs: big nest! When the sweep came on Thursday he put a periscope up the chimney and reported that a large nest was in place in the bend of the chimney. He took four hours to clear it out, a job that would have taken him an hour without the nest, which had to be broken up, hooked out and pulled down in pieces. It contained sheep’s wool that bound the twigs together, and whole cow pats that were used as cement. I think it was a complete apartment block actually, there was so much of it. But it’s gone. The trick now is to get bird-proof chimney pots before the next nest-building season. We had chicken wire on the chimney pots, but the birds, jackdaws probably, soon made light of that! We’ve asked a roofer to come and replace the pots with bird-proof ones. We light the fire on Christmas Eve, so he needs to come before then, because we keep it burning until the spring, by which time the jackdaw fraternity will be back, demanding squatters’ rights.

Yesterday, more poetry. Hilary and I went to the Manchester Art Gallery for a Poetry Business workshop with Peter Sansom. I met up with several poetry friends there: David Borrott who was on the MA with me and is a colleague on the Poets&Players committee; and Pam Thompson who had travelled up from Leicester, who was a prize winner in our P&P competition a couple of years ago, and read for us at the celebration event. It was lovely to be among poets and concentrating on some writing that doesn’t involve mothers. Creativity has been a barren landscape since I finished the PhD: I’ve found writing difficult, a dry spell, so it was good to have the stimulation of Peter’s writing prompts and get the ‘first draft pencil’ working again. I came away with three or four first drafts that might be worth working up. The poem I’m including in my blog this week is one I wrote yesterday. It’s too young to be let out on its own really, but I’m so pleased that I managed to write something I want to share. I think the poetry muscle might be healing, flexing itself again.

This is the poem I wrote from a piece of artwork in the gallery. The task was to find a painting, or a piece of artwork of some kind, and write from the stimulation of it. It was a wide-open task: describe what’s happening in the painting, write about it in a poetic form of some kind. I chose to write my poem in cinquaine stanzas. A cinquaine is a five-line syllabic form: two, four, six, eight, two syllables to the lines in that order. I wandered around the gallery waiting for something to inspire me when I came across a huge canvas, William Etty’s ‘The Sirens and Ulysses’. I sat in front of it for a while, just looking. When I started work I wrote three stanzas for my poem using cinquaines for each stanza. Here it is. Be kind to it, it’s still a baby.

Siren Song
from The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty
Manchester Art Gallery,  October 2019

 Open
your eyes man, look—
their chorus is poison.
Too many have succumbed, lie
broken.

Their lyre
lies, there are no
home hearths in this aria.
It’ll suck flesh from bones, then spit
you out.

Hold tight
to the main brace,
splice yourself to the hull,
stop up your ears with bladderwrack.
Sail on!


Rachel Davies
October 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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