Microbes, comets and a good clear-out

I’ve been spring-cleaning. I realise you probably don’t want to keep hearing all about it, but I saw this week how it is a progressive stage of the PhD. I’m suffering from ‘deadline guilt’! It’s a form of PTSD: Post-PhD Stress Disorder, although I have no proof it’s actually a thing. If it isn’t it should be. I have this residual feeling of guilt if I’m not at my desk by 9.00 a.m. working toward the PhD; then I remember the PhD is submitted and there are no deadlines to meet. So I’m spring-cleaning with a vengeance; spring-cleaning with my usual obsessive, fully committed vigour. I’m not just spring-cleaning the house: I’m spring-cleaning my brain, getting back to some form of normality post-PhD. I’m dusting the PhD cobwebs out of the corners, polishing the mental windows, throwing out the build-up of collected academic paraphernalia, clearing my mind. It’s working.

I visited the charity shop again this week, with bags of clothes and other clutter from the bedroom. Now I’m starting on my study, and that really is a clearing out of a past life. I came across stuff relating to a race relations/community cohesion project I led when I retired from headship in 2003. That’s almost sixteen years ago! It all went through the shredder; with the admin stuff from my very last OU course before I graduated in 2007. More black bags of contributions to the charity shops—and I haven’t even started on my bookshelves, or the cupboard where I keep all my sketching stuff. I’ve got plenty to keep me going while I wait to hear about the Viva.

I have done other stuff this week. My son Richard was fifty on Monday, so Amie and I went to Peterborough to help him celebrate. On Sunday I made him a yummy plum pie: it’s a bit of a joke in the family; but it was a real pie, made with love. We took him a handmade guitar, a book of newspaper headlines about his beloved Peterborough United; Amie took him a Bose speaker system and a vegan birthday cake. We went out for a meal, I drank too much wine. It was a lovely evening. A friend called when we went back to his house for birthday cake: she gave him a garden hammock. He said he loves being fifty because people keep giving him things.

On Tuesday, Hilary and I went to Sheffield to read at the Bath Hotel in the ‘Writers in the Bath’ series. Our poetry friend Linda Goulden was also reading from her new pamphlet, Speaking Parts (Half Moon Books, 2019). Hilary and I read from our joint pamphlet Some Mothers Do…as well as other, newer poems. I read from my thesis, which felt good, no paper flapping around to unsettle me! At the end of the evening the audience were invited to request we each repeat one of the poems we read. The audience requested I re-read ‘On Falling In Love With McNaught’, about which, more later. We sold some books, we bought some books. Cora Greenhill, who organises the ‘Writers in the Bath’ readings took us all out for a Turkish meal in Efes before the reading, so that was a pleasant and relaxing start to the evening. It was a lovely night altogether; although the weather was horrible, really lashing rain which made driving the dark Yorkshire country roads on the way home a bit hazardous.

Early in the week my body started to brew the headiest cold in the universe. Those bloody microbes that saw off H.G. Wells’ Martians have inhabited my body. So I’ve been dragging that around with me for most of the week. When I was a teacher/headteacher I always managed to get through the term-times without being ill and then got poleaxed by germs in the holidays; same format: finished the PhD, knocked over by microbes! But you can’t keep a good woman down so I’ve told it to do one, and carried on regardless. But oh my, those sneezing fits…I think I’m the first woman to catch manful: perhaps it’s mutating?

Enough: here’s a bit more about McNaught. In 2007 I was in Australia with Bill, following the one-day international cricket. As part of the holiday, we drove the great ocean road from Melbourne to Adelaide, stopping off at a couple of hotels en route. On the last night before Adelaide, we stopped at a small town called Robe, at a lovely guest house called ‘Ann’s Place’. Ann was a bit like a parody of Dame Edna, but a wonderful hostess. After the evening meal, her husband suggested we should go out into the garden to see McNaught’s comet, which was visible in the southern skies at the time. I didn’t know too much about McNaught’s comet, and expected to spot a large star or something. Anyway, we went out into the garden, sat on the garden wall looking out over the sea and we saw…nothing. We waited about fifteen minutes and gave up, decided to go back indoors. When we turned to go in, there it was, behind us all the time. Oh, my word, it was beautiful!

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McNaught’s Comet, Southern Australia 2007

The photo doesn’t do it justice. It had a glowing ball at the front and a long, long tail. It looked close enough to reach up and touch. It was like that wonderful depiction of a comet in the Bayeux Tapestry, or a like child’s drawing of a comet. It was perfect, and thoroughly gob-smacking. And when you factor in that it only appears every 40,000 years, how lucky were we to be there to see it? Think about it, the last time it appeared, the very first humans were beginning to inhabit Australia! I felt so privileged to see it. I started my creative writing MA at MMU in September of that year, and I wrote a long rambling poem about McNaught, about the chances of us bumping into each other in that remote place. Simon Arimitage, the new Poet Laureate, was one of my tutors at the time, and I took the poem to one of his workshops. He suggested I was trying to write a love poem, and advised me to think of it as such in the redraft. Well, I had a bit of a down on men after two failed marriages, and love poetry wasn’t a personal speciality, so I wrote a ‘not-a-love-poem’; a tongue in cheek poem about falling in love with McNaught without having to endure the break-up of the relationship. This is that poem. It appeared in Some Mothers Do… Our editor, Rebecca Bilkau, wanted a bit of light relief from all the mother stuff, and it doesn’t get much lighter than this tongue in cheek love affair!

 

On Falling In Love With McNaught

McNaught’s Comet, Southern Australia, 2007

You didn’t take me out or wine and dine me
at Don Gio’s, expect me to laugh at your jokes,
or touch my fingers across the table, or buy me
flowers like ordinary blokes.

We didn’t enjoy a first blistering kiss,
or share a universe-shifting fuck
that makes you wish it could be like this
for ever, knowing you never have that kind of luck.

We didn’t run barefoot on winter beaches
or play hide and seek among autumn trees
or picnic on chicken and soft summer peaches
or laugh at ourselves doing any of these.

We didn’t get married or live as a couple,
and share a life or a name or kids;
so your twice worn socks couldn’t burst my bubble,
or your morning farts or your pants with skids.

You never once, in post-coital passion
whispered a strange woman’s name in my ear
or came home drenched in your girlfriend’s Poison
or shielded your phone so I couldn’t hear.

You didn’t promise roses and bring me thistles
or when I soared try to tie me to land.
McNaught, you were never a man to commit to

but a brilliantly cosmic one night stand.

 

Rachel Davies
2007                           

 

Poetry fills the void left by a submitted thesis

There’s a strange sort of limbo after you’ve submitted your thesis. I know the message will soon come that my Viva date needs setting, but it seems a long way away; and then I realise it’s nearly four weeks since I handed my work into MMU and I see how that ten-twelve week period between submission and assessment is disappearing fast. Just yesterday I picked up an e-receipt from MMU for the submitted work, and notification that it had been processed through Turnitin, the programme that checks for plagiarism. My beautiful thesis is living its own life out there in the big world, while I lose myself in the mundane world of the spring clean. And in poetry.

Spring cleaning is just the therapy I needed after four years of brain-work. This week I’ve finished cleaning the kitchen — nearly choked myself spraying the oven with Mr. Muscle oven cleaner — and started on the bedroom. On Wednesday we took a carload of crockery, glasses, cooking pots and utensils to the charity shop in Uppermill. And I mean a carload: the boot and back seat were full. Yesterday I pruned my wardrobe and filled black bags with clothes I don’t wear any more. That will all go to the charity shop this week. Charity shops are recycling of the best kind. I’ve made lots of brilliant buys at charity shops; my favourite purchase was from a charity shop in Ilkley, a brand new — still with the original labels attached — Seasalt waterproof coat. It would have cost £140 from Seasalt, I bought it for just under £40. So I take stuff to charity shops whenever I can. I’ll be reloading my car on Tuesday, the next time I need to go into Uppermill.

Thankfully, the hole left in my life by the submission of the thesis has made a space that poetry can help to fill. This week I’ve been doing some planning of workshops and readings that Hilary and I have coming up over the next couple of weeks. Here are some of the events, it would be good to see you there.

On Tuesday June 11thHilary Robinson, Linda Goulden and I are reading at Writers in the Bath —at the Bath Hotel in Sheffield, 7.30 p.m. Here’s a link to the Writers in the Bath Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/2690454774302429/This event includes an open-mic session, so why not come along and give it a go. On Saturday June 22ndHilary and I are running a poetry workshop for Didsbury Arts Festival…

https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/76-my-family-and-other-curiosities

…and on Monday June 24thwe will be reading from our joint pamphlet, Some Mothers Do…, along with other poems, also at Didsbury:

https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/5-rachel-davies-hilary-robinson-poetry-reading?date=2019-06-24-19-30

This event includes an open-mic session as well. We’re also running a workshop for Langley Writers at the Demesne Community Centre, Middleton on Thursday 20thJune, 2.15-4.15 p.m.

So the next couple of weeks are going to be busy and full of poetry, the best kind of weeks. There’s been a fair amount of poetry this week too. On Tuesday Hilary and I met up with Natalie Burdett at the Molino Lounge in Oldham to share and workshop some poems. On Tuesday morning I spent a couple of hours typing up some poems from our recent Line Break in Coniston so that I’d have something new to take. I took along four poems, we all did, and it was a good night: food, coffee and poetry. And friends. All my favourite things in one evening event!

Yesterday I gave time to submissions: it needs one day a week to be methodical about it. I submitted about a dozen poems to various journals/anthologies. I haven’t been very efficient at submitting while I was doing the PhD: time is a big issue, and most of my time was taken up with completing the PhD work. I still have this weird guilt when I find myself doing other stuff, as if I should be dedicating every second to PhD. That’s how it was. So now it’s good to have time to pay my poems the respect I think they deserve and try them out for publication. But why, I wonder, can’t submissions be standardised? Each small press has its own submission guidelines, and they all vary slightly. If the process was the same for all submissions it would be so much simpler for the writer. For instance, some want all poems in a single Word document, some want separate documents for each poem; some want Times New Roman specifically, others are happy with any plain font size 12; some specify three, or five poems max, some don’t specify. One even went on word count. Some require a short author biog, some not. It would be so much easier if all submissions followed the same guidelines, but you risk annoying the editors if you ignore the guidelines, as I know from doing admin for the Poets&Players competition every year. Finally, I heard this week that one of my poems, ‘Alternative Mother #6: Pope Joan’ was accepted for publication in the online journal, Riggwelter, for their October edition, so that’s a good start for the submissions I sent out from Coniston. Let’s hope this continues.

Enough. Here’s a poem. This is one I wrote following our morning visit to Leighton Moss bird reserve. When we arrived and showed our RSPB membership cards to get in, the woman in the shop advised us to look out for the aerial ballet of the marsh harriers, listen for the chiff chaff of the chiff chaff, the song of Cetti’s warbler. We sat on a bench and looked to the sky and listened for the warbling of rare birds. Nothing. But we did see lots of blackbirds, geese, black-capped gulls, and I had this thought that if birds were humans they’d have to put their name down on a waiting list for a pitch at Leighton Moss, whereas the birds just turn up and move in, no waiting list, no profit involved. So I had this idea for a poem. There was a notice by the bench that told us a bit more about the aerial ballet of the marsh harriers, how the male feeds the female in mid-air while she is tasked with incubating the eggs. This sounds like a real act of devotion to the mother of his chicks; but the notice said the male might well be feeding more than one female, a raptor love-cheat. We moved from the bench to one of the hides and watched water birds on the lake, including some very proud-looking greylag geese. When we got back to Coniston I drafted this poem over a pint of Old Peculiar in the spring sunshine.

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a greylag goose flying low over the water

The Greylag Geese move up the waiting list for a home at Leighton Moss

We did everything they asked—arrived
early, tired but determined before
the best plots were taken. They asked
what can you bring to conservation?
Eggs, lots of them. We come from a long heritage
of layers. We promised whatever it takes:
gaudy socks, fluffball chicks,
a low flying display over the water, like Lancasters
searching for dams. Are you affable, they asked.
As affable as the next goose, if we’re not dissed.

They gave us a pitch on this pontoon
in the Lake by the hide. It was fine
until the ASBO neighbours moved in:
cormorants brooding like old monks,
bitterns firing their canon at dawn.
And don’t get me started on the grebes.
The grebes can keep it up all night, dancing,
partying, shagging, building nests.

I thought at least the marsh harriers
showed some class with their aerial ballet —
but word on the lake is he’s got a bit on the side.

I’ve requested a nest swap to Burnham Marshes.

 

Rachel Davies
May 2019

The Release From House Arrest

This week I learned what it is to have submitted your PhD thesis and be free to do other stuff. Mostly it feels good, like being released from house arrest, even though my brain is suffering from some sort of post-PhD mush: I can’t string a sentence together at the moment—for instance, I told a friend I’d had a side saddle with my pasta for tea! It’s nice, though, not to have to turn a blind eye to mundane stuff because you have to draft/redraft/edit the same section you drafted/redrafted/edited last month and the month before that. So I’ve been doing some of that mundane stuff this week. And poetry; I’ve been doing poetry.

I’ve started on the big spring-clean I promised myself when the thesis was handed in. I’ve made a start on clearing out kitchen cupboards. Bill and I came together late in life, so we joined two well-established lives—and all the flotsam of those lives. This week I decided if it hasn’t been used for a couple of years we probably don’t need it, so I’ve decimated the kitchen equipment. I threw out a couple of chipped pasta dishes, but mostly I put aside dishes, plates, glasses, weird gadgets and quirky tools to take to a local charity shop. I have so much to take they’ll probably have to build an annexe; or donate the excess to another charity shop? My dining table is covered, but I think I’ve reached the end; just have to get it all there somehow now. For days the house smelled of ground cloves because I chucked out-of-date herbs and spices: I emptied jars into the bin so I could recycle the bottles and the scent permeated the house. I’m nearly done, just a couple of cupboards left to organise, I’ll be attacking them later today.

On Tuesday I had to go for an ultrasound scan of my thyroid gland. Doc thinks I have an underactive thyroid, probably aggravated by the steroids I have to take for Polymyalgia Rheumatica, this nasty autoimmune disease. I don’t have any hypothyroid symptoms; at least the symptoms are probably similar to PMR and the effects of Prednisolone use, so I’d hardly notice. I’ve a mental picture of my underactive thyroid reclining on a sofa with a bucket of popcorn and a beer, bingeing on Netflix box-sets: that’s what I do when I’m being underactive! And that must be what the scan showed because I got a letter on Thursday asking me to make ‘a non-urgent’ appointment to see the doctor re the results of my recent scan. So that probably means another pill to swallow.

On Tuesday evening it was the East Manchester and Tameside Stanza at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. This month we wrote to prompts that members brought along to the meeting. There were two apologies due to illness, and one from a member who’s cycling the Dordoigne; so four of us met this time: we’re a Stanza on the endangered list but we keep on struggling to survive. It was a good session, despite our reduced numbers. We all contributed a prompt; we redacted passages of prose to find poems hidden inside; we edited long published poems to find our own shorter poem; we wrote from one-line starters; we wrote from the prompt to join a concrete object with an abstract: ‘the boot of disgust’, ‘the cloak of shame’ etc. There was nothing heavy about it, and we all found some new poems. Linda Goulden brought her newly published pamphlet, Speaking Parts,which is gorgeous and will be released this week. Hilary and I will be reading with Linda at ‘Writers in the Bath’ in Sheffield on June 11th; there’s an open-mic as well, so come along if you live nearby. Here is info from their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/2690454774302429/

Wednesday, more kitchen cupboards; and I went to the Black Ladd to edit the menus for my daughter, Amie. Thursday, more cupboards and Tesco shopping; Friday more cupboards and into Manchester for lunch; and out with my friend Joan in the evening. It’s Joan’s birthday next week so we had a celebratory meal in the Istanbul Grill in Prestwich. Saturday more cupboards and European Champions League final. Ordinary stuff, stuff I’m doing because I want to, not because there are deadlines. Boring stuff, happy stuff, fun stuff. I could get used to this post-PhD ordinary life!

So, a poem. Friday was the birthday of a woman I knew when I was a child, a friend of my mother’s. I guess there are times we all think we’re born into the wrong family and I used to wish Meg was my mum. She lived in a little cottage in the woods, no mod cons: her toilet was a little hut up the garden path, she decorated it with photos of exotic places she’d have liked to visit. She had no mains water, just spring water on tap; no washing machine  or television; she raised four children in that little cottage, and she welcomed her children’s friends like members of her own family. She was a lovely, fun-loving woman with a dark secret: she wasn’t as happy as she let us all believe. I wrote this ‘alternative mother’ poem inspired by Meg; it was first published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying(ed Isabelle Kenyon, 2018), an anthology to raise funds for the mental health charity ‘Mind’. The anthology is available to buy on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Please-Hear-What-Not-Saying/dp/1984006649

The poem is a modern sonnet, a turn at line 9. It’s written in syllabics: ten syllables to a line, until that’s disrupted in the last line, the place where Meg’s life is disrupted.
Sixty years on, I still remember Meg every year on her birthday.

 

Alternative Mother #16
Meg

Teach me to build a den down by the beck,
how to pond-dip water snails, sticklebacks;
teach me to pick kindling sticks to build
a campfire, how to mount a stone surround
to keep  me safe;  teach me how to light it,
let  it  burn to  embers  before baking sour-
dough bread on willow sticks; teach me how
to live without the essentials: running water,
flushing toilet. You. Teach me how to forgive
a lover who doesn’t deserve me, how
to raise a family alone. But don’t teach me

how some days feel so dark you won’t ever
see daylight again; and please don’t teach me
how a bridge over the M1 is the only way out.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

Poetry and metapoetry

On Sunday we got down to work at about 11.00, later than we intended, but we had a leisurely breakfast: we were on holiday. We did a writing exercise to kick us off: I wrote a poem about being torn in half through the spine, which was rubbish and I won’t dwell on it. I could feel that post deadline writer’s block; I’d almost hurdled it by the end of the week, but on Sunday my writing muscle was withered. Passing on, we had the rest of the morning to plan the writing workshop, ‘My Family and Other Curiosities’, that we’re running on Saturday June 22nd for Didsbury Arts Festival: https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/76-my-family-and-other-curiositiesI think there are still places available if you fancy coming along. We spent a couple of hours reading and choosing suitable poems to use as writing prompts, and deciding how we’re going to use them. We have a plan. Our Tesco online shopping order arrived at lunchtime: enough food to feed a family of five for a week. We put it away and carried on working for an hour. We stopped for lunch about 1.30 then went into Coniston to explore the locality. We got as far as the pub, had an al fresco pint. The sun was warm; when it went behind the clouds the air cooled considerably. We walked around the village, came to a café and had a coffee then back to the cottage to cook a vegetarian roast dinner. The meal took us all evening to eat and we talked over wine until late. We’d booked a cottage without a dishwasher, so by the time we washed the dishes it was bedtime.

Monday followed a similar format: breakfast then work. We were at our books by 10.00. We took some old writing notebooks/journals away with us to try to develop some of the forgotten pieces buried in them. On Monday we went back through some of them and revisited old attempts. I found my notebook from my last visit to Australia in 2011. I rewrote some of the poems from then; interesting exercise. I found one about the fruit bats in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens; one about the Queensland cricket ground at Woolloongabba—the ‘Gabba’—in Brisbane. It was good to revisit the poems: almost like revisiting the places. I came across a couple of notes I need to google to find out more information; they might make new poems too. After an hour or so, we did some more planning. Earlier this year we met up with Lydgate Stitchers, an Oldham-based embroidery/textiles group. They are currently sewing a huge mural of the development of Lydgate, an area of Oldham on the edge of Saddleworth. We met to see how we could put words into the mix; we’re planning a poetic response to their artwork. We spent time on Monday planning the project. It has to be said, we didn’t get far; we need another meeting with the stitchers, I think. But I’ve committed to writing some short forms—haiku, cinquaine, nonettes etc—about the on-going mural in the meantime. After lunch we walked to the Lake to see if there was a boat trip. We had time for a coffee before the final Launch—a sort of waterbus—of the day at 3.55 p.m. Everyone else on board (there were only a couple of couples) seemed to be going somewhere, a destination: getting off at Brantwood House, for instance. We just wanted to do the round trip. Our start and destination was the Coniston jetty. We took our notebooks to make notes for poems. I love a boat trip, and the weather was glorious, the Lake still as a millpond. We learned a lot about Donald Campbell’s Bluebird.  Hilary’s turn to cook tea on Monday: she’d taken her Raclette grill and we had grilled vegetables with melted Raclette cheese: delicious; and a very sociable way of eating.

Tuesday, and we went out for the day. I drove us to Little Salkeld near Penrith to see Long Meg and Her Daughters, a bronze age stone circle. We’d both written poems about Long Meg in a Jennifer Copley workshop about six years ago. Hilary had seen the circle years ago, I’d never been there. We wanted to read our poems to Meg. The legend is that Meg had gone to the meadow on May Day morning with her daughters to wash their faces in the dew and forsee their future husbands. A predatory village elder had seen the women dancing and had raped them: it must have been a monolithic task—pardon the pun—because there are about fifty of them! Anyway, he slandered them as witches to save his own reputation; the villagers hounded them and they were literally petrified where they stand to this day. We read our poems to Meg and, as Hilary said, she was speechless.  It has to be said, if I was writing that poem again after my visit it would be a different poem: you can’t beat a bit of first-hand experience, as I always advocated as a primary school teacher. We went from the stone circle to the Little Salkeld Mill, a working flour mill, for lunch. When we got back to Coniston we went for a pint in the sunshine; I wanted to look for a bowl big enough to cook a portion of porridge: the cereal bowls in the cottage were too small. I found one, and a Beatrix Potter ‘Percy Pig’ felt toy. This is the Year of the Pig in Chinese astrology; and I’m a pig.

Reading my poem to Long Meg

On Wednesday I drove us into Arnside after breakfast. We visited the dress agency there, ‘She Sells’. I bought a tunic. We had coffee and crumpets in the café next door, then drove on to Leighton Moss RSPB bird reserve. We’d read at the launch of a Beautiful Dragons anthology, Watch the Birdie, in November last year. The anthology drew attention to the many birds in the UK that have become endangered species: everyday garden birds like the sparrow and the thrush among them. The proceeds from the sale of the anthology were donated to the RSPB for conservation work. I wanted to hand over the money I had in my purse from copies of the book I’d sold. We walked round the reserve, what we call ‘extreme benching’: we stopped at any benches we passed and wrote notes for poems. Leighton Moss must be a highly desirable residence for birds, and I wondered if they have to put their names down, go on a waiting list like humans for social housing. We spent half an hour in one of the reserve’s hides watching the beautiful mating dance of a pair of crested grebes and the low flight of the greylag geese over the water. It’s a lovely, peaceful and uplifting place.

On Thursday we got down to more table-top work. We intended to do another Napowrimo prompt. We checked out the recording of a poem online, read the Sharon Olds poem, ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’; but we couldn’t get inspired to write anything. So we settled on a piece of automatic writing, taking a line from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock’ as our launch phrase. We wrote for five minutes. Still uninspired to come up with a poem, we reverted to another Jennifer Copley activity. After we’d written a poem in one of her workshops, she ordered us to get rid of 50% of the words. We did that with our automatic writing, reducing the word count from about 100 words to about 50. Interesting exercise if you’re ever stuck with an idea, because we ended up with something that began to look like a poem. We had the audacity to do it to the Sharon Olds poem too. Not many people can say they edited (I won’t say bettered) a poem of Sharon Olds! We tried the exercise on some poems in our old notebooks too: trust me, it really is a worthwhile exercise.

We walked to the Lake again after work, Hilary wanted to buy a couple of salt lamps for a friend at the retail park en route. We had a coffee in the sunshine, went back to the cottage for lunch. Here’s where I tell you about our open-mic at Troutbeck. At 3.15 we left the cottage to drive to Ambleside for a look around the shops, drive on to Troutbeck for a pub meal before the open-mic at 9.00 p.m. That was the plan; but the best laid plans…it took us two and a half hours to drive two miles out of Coniston. The roads were gridlocked due to an accident—serious enough to need an air ambulance—somewhere earlier in the day, that road being closed and all traffic diverted onto other roads. We got less than half way to Ambleside before we decided to turn the car round and go home. I did a perfect 23 point turn on the narrow road and we walked up the hill from our cottage to the Sun pub, had a pint in the beer garden. We never did make it to the Troutbeck reading; but then, I don’t suppose many people did if they needed a car to get there. We ate left-overs for supper and had a very different evening from the one we planned.

Friday we dedicated to redesigning our submissions systems. We looked online for an A2 desk calendar pad to write deadlines in; I found one on Amazon, ordered a copy. I know I’ve wasted the first five months; I checked academic year versions, but the only one I found had its price doubled by postage from USA, so I reckon wasting five months was first favourite. We then took time to rethink our spreadsheets. I love a spreadsheet when you first set it up; but it becomes so ungainly when you add to it. You end up with huge amounts you can’t see any more. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a spreadsheet expert: I’m a self-taught user. I decided I’d stick with a form I can see the whole of; so I’m concentrating for now on 24 of my best poems. I submitted a selection to various journals before we stopped work for lunch. I’ll just work on submitting those for now, see how it goes, resubmit them somewhere else when they’re rejected. If they’re accepted, I’ll substitute them for new poems. That’s the plan anyway. On Friday afternoon we made it to Ambleside to look around the shops, I saw lots I would have liked to buy, but I kept my purse strings tight. We came home to packing our suitcases for leaving on Saturday morning; had a chippie tea.

On Saturday we finished packing, had a brew, packed the car and left the cottage. We drove home via Low Sizergh Barn where we had breakfast. Hilary bought me a lovely hairy sloth, because I wouldn’t take any money for petrol. My ‘alternative mother’ poem about the three-toed sloth is one of my favourites, so I’ll be taking my Sloth Mummy to readings with me in future. We left the Barn and drove home, the end of a wonderful week of poetry and meta-poetry; and beer, wine and food and general good stuff.

Hilary (R), me (L) and Sloth Mummy (C) (photo courtesy of Ben Robinson).

If If

I’m going to leave you with my Long Meg poem this week. I revisited it, redrafted it last year for the portfolio. Legend has it, you can’t count them: you arrive at a different total each time you try. All I can say is, my poem reflects the legend and Meg liked it. At least, she didn’t say she didn’t like it, so that’ll do me.

Long Meg and her Daughters

On that magical day heralding summer
Meg brought her enchantment of girls
to wash their faces in the dew
as dawn rose behind their virgin skirts.

One hypocritical elder
slanders the euphoria of women
and he’s lauded as saint, sees the dancers
hounded as witches by the villagers.

The snake venom in the standing prick
of that horny zealot paralysed their dance.
Petrified, yet they still seem to move in the ring.
Count them if you can. I dare you.

Rachel Davies

2018

The final hand-over

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I handed this beauty in to MMU for assessment this week. On Tuesday, first thing, I submitted a digital version of the thesis and signed the RDDEC form to say it was all my own work etc. Then I went into Manchester and took the long walk to the bookbinders on Higher Cambridge Street. It was hot and I was tired. I called into MMU on my way back to hand it over. I had an attack of the usual angst I feel when I’ve had to fill in an official form: for some reason official forms always make me feel like a liar. RDDEC had several tick boxes, including that no part of the thesis had previously been published; or if it had, that the published part should be included in a pocket in the thesis. I took this to mean publication in academic journals, so I ticked ‘no’. But as I was travelling into Manchester on the tram I realised that several of the poems had been published, and an article had appeared in The North that was inspired by the thesis, although was not directly part of it. So the old proforma angst pecked my head again: had I lied on the form? Should I dob myself in? I couldn’t edit the form now I’d signed it off. So I spoke to the wonderful Deborah, who deals with all the queries about Post Graduate Research degrees. I’d included all my publication history in an acknowledgements page; would my reply on the form be an issue? She assured me it would be fine and not to worry. Not to worry? I always worry about official forms. I suffer from proformaphobia. After our phone conversation, I met her in the foyer of the Righton Building and handed over two copies of the thesis. It was lovely to meet her in the real world, we’ve met in the virtual world of email so many times over the last four years. She promised to look after my baby and make sure it gets to the official rendezvous with assessors. I’ll hear from my DoS about a date for the viva in about eight to ten weeks.

 I left the MMU campus and walked into Manchester. I needed to go to the Pen Shop for cartridges for my fountain pen. When I got there, the shop was closed with notices in the window about letting queries. I am bereft! This was one of my favourite shops, a real old-style store with the most beautiful pens available. I treated myself to a Mont Blanc fountain pen when I was awarded a distinction in my Creative Writing MA: a treat to myself. I know, most people would have treated themselves to a holiday, or a day in a health spa, or a bottle of champagne. I just love stationery. My son had given me a Mont Blanc ball point for Christmas some years ago, and I promised myself when I started the MA that if I managed a distinction, I would buy myself the fountain pen to go with it. I did, and I did. My partner bought me the mechanical pencil to match, and a leather pouch to put them all in for my birthday, which was about the same time. So I used to love to go into the Pen Shop to buy my cartridges and drool over all the beautiful, and reassuringly expensive, pens they had for sale. And now it’s gone. There’s still one in the Trafford Centre as far as I know, but the one in town is closed. It’s a sad day for pen lovers. The next day I ordered eight packs of cartridges from www.penshop.co.uk  and they arrived the next day. Delivery was free. How’s that for brilliant service? Anyway, I walked from the Pen Shop to Exchange Square where I had lunch al fresco at Wahaca. I sat in the warm sunshine with a glass of wine and a quesadilla, celebrating the official hand-over of my work for assessment.

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Me, reading at the Square Chapel, Halifax on Monday this week.
(photo courtesy of Hilary Robinson)

Poetry has been big in my life this week. On Monday evening Hilary and I went to Halifax to read at Square Chapel poets, hosted by the irrepressible Keith Hutson. Strange discovery: people in Halifax don’t eat on a Monday. Or at least that’s how it seemed: every restaurant we passed was closed on Mondays; until we found a lovely little Italian restaurant, Julio’s, down a side road. We had a lovely meal and a glass of Pinot Grigio before our reading. Ian Walker, another MMU creative writing MA graduate, was also reading. It was a lovely evening. I treated the audience to some of my ‘alternative mothers’. Of course, Hilary and I both read from Tonia Bevin’s poems in Some Mothers Do…as well as reading some of our own. It was a small audience, but an appreciative one. We sold a copy of our book.

‘Life’ has been large this week, with the thesis gone. On Wednesday we went to Stamford, Lincolnshire to visit my sister. Stamford is the town they often film period dramas in for the television. It is a Georgian-style stone-built town, you’ve probably seen it in televisual adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Anyway, it was Jane’s birthday last week, so we met for lunch to wish her a belated happy birthday. I was tied up with prepping the thesis for submission around her actual birthday. We had a lovely day and a lovely lunch. On the way home I picked up a nail in my rear driver’s side tyre. I didn’t realise until I wanted to go out the next day and the tyre was pancake flat. I drove it carefully to the nearest garage and had it replaced. The mechanic, Danny, said he could have repaired it, but because I’d been driving on it flat, I had damaged the wall of the tyre and weakened it. That must have been when I was driving home from Stamford because the garage was only a couple of miles from home, and I don’t think driving that short distance would have done the damage. I hadn’t felt the flat tyre in my driving at all. Apparently that’s the way with modern tyres. I remember the first time I drove on a flat tyre, when I was a newly qualified driver a lifetime ago. The steering felt heavy, difficult to control. But it was snowing at the time and I’d blamed the snow. My husband wasn’t pleased when he knew I’d driven home on a flat. But on Wednesday I didn’t feel a thing. So, on Thursday I needed a replacement tyre. I also asked Danny to replace the front tyre that had an advisory notice at MOT, so I had to fork out for two new tyres. Not too bad, actually; less than I’d feared.

On Saturday I collected Hilary at lunchtime and we drove to Coniston for our annual Line Break writing week. We started out six years ago with four poet friends going away together. Then there were five of us. Over the years a couple of friends have moved on. Last year there were three of us. This year Polly couldn’t make it, so it’s just Hilary and me. We feel like a story line in an Agatha Christie: ‘and then there were two’. So I’m writing this from my bed in a cottage in Coniston. It’s a nice cottage, quiet location almost next door to the pub, an Indian restaurant across the road. What’s not to like? Later today we’ll be writing and planning the various writing workshops and readings we have coming up in June. We’ve brought lots of old notebooks to go through looking for poetic gems that have fallen by the wayside. A poet’s life, eh! It’s all go.

So, a poem. This is a poem I wrote in one of Carola Luther’s workshops in St. Ives in April. We were asked to think of a significant event from our lives and write about it, incorporating a repeating image. I took the image of the python to describe the road and the hedgerows snaking away, and Ann Cowling’s long legs. It is also the image of the pain of a fractured skull, a python crushing my head. This actually happened when I was nine years old. My head hit the road, I was knocked unconscious and I spent five days in hospital. What we didn’t know at the time was that it also knocked the three little bones of the inner ear out of sync, so that the hearing was impaired in my right ear. That wasn’t discovered until I was sixteen. No treatment, no use of hearing aids. Only delicate surgery would repair the damage, and as long as I can cope with sharp hearing in the left ear, it’s best left alone. Mostly it’s fine. Sometimes I mishear things, which can be amusing; like the time a friend told me about her ‘everlasting’ bra. That seemed like a good buy, so I asked her where she got it. ‘Ethel Austin,’ she said. ‘I just told you!’

Anyway, here it is, ‘Python’:

 Python

The road snakes away, a python
slithering from the village to Brownlow’s corner.
Red, or rust really, its skin
leaks molten tar on hot days.

The hedgerows are wild, untamed—
also python, their skins shedding regularly
from brown through green, white with May,
the red spots of autumn’s bounty.

Fact: Ann Cowling can run. Her legs
are python too, long and strong.
On that day I was tuned out from sound
she pushed me on the scooter until
her feet ran away with her,
her hands let go the handlebars.

I know the feeling of a scooter’s wobble,
the panic just before the fall. I know
the weird sense of being at my own front door
unsure how I got there. I know the pain of a skull
being crushed by a giant constricting snake.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Nothing if not feisty

I did it. On Sunday I printed off a copy of the thesis, poems included. I sat in my study going through it with a nit comb, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I found a fair few. I don’t see them when I read on screen, they’re so much easier to spot on paper. I worked on it all day. Correcting errors in some of the poems led to a bit of editing; one poem that I’ve never been entirely sure about I re-drafted completely. I worked on it all day Sunday and again on Tuesday. By the end of Tuesday it was finished. I saved it on the USB drive, put it safely in my purse and felt free. And a bit sad. But mostly unbelievably released. Since Wednesday I’ve been practising life beyond PhD.

On Wednesday, I took the thesis into Manchester to the bookbinders, ready for the final submission to MMU for assessment. I’d saved it to the USB drive as a Word document. When I eventually got to the front of a very long queue—it’s the summer term, lots of students having theses/dissertations bound for assessment—the girl said I should have saved it as PDF file: Word files can reformat on different computers. She said I could check on one of the computers at the back of the room to see if the formatting had changed. If it had I would need to save it as PDF on the computer I had it stored on, my own computer. When I checked, it looked OK; except now it ended on p. 168: the contents list ended on p. 167, so somewhere it had acquired an extra page. And here goes Sisyphus again, pushing that rock. Luckily I’d had the foresight to take my MacBook with me, so I sat in the bookbinder’s waiting area, resaving the thesis on my MacBook as a PDF file. I promoted myself to the front of the queue when I’d done and the girl saved the file on the shop’s computer. I’ve ordered three copies in black buckram binding with gold lettering. They’ll be ready to collect on Tuesday coming, when I’ll take it to MMU, along with the USB stick and submit the work for assessment.

There have been days in the last four years when I didn’t think I’d get to this point. At times the job has seemed too big, like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s been a long and difficult journey but I’ve reached the end; well, almost: I still have to submit it successfully; and I have the final assessment about twelve weeks from now. But the reading, writing, editing, redrafting, rewriting, revisiting, re-rewriting, re-re-re-editing is done. I am done. Bill and I went for lunch to celebrate after I’d dropped it off for binding.

In other news, my iPad cover split this week along its magnetic strip. I tried unsuccessfully to glue it back together, so while I was in Manchester on Wednesday I called in at the Apple store to buy a replacement. So now I’m £45 poorer, but I have a lovely new, bright red cover for my iPad. It’s almost like having a new iPad. Except cheaper. This is how I rationalise spending a massive £45 for the new cover: a new iPad would have cost considerably more. And it looks new. So…

Friends keep asking me what I’ll do now the PhD is nearly done. When I say ‘nothing’ they don’t believe me. ‘You’ll do something,’ they say. ‘You’ll sign up for another degree before long.’ NO. I won’t. I’ve reached the summit of my personal Everest, I have nothing left to prove. So for the rest of this week I’ve been thinking about what I will do post-PhD. And the first thing, the thing I promised myself all along, is to give the house a jolly good spring clean. Something has to go when you do a PhD; the time commitment means you can’t keep doing exactly the same stuff as you did before you started. I was determined poetry wouldn’t suffer: what would be the point of doing a PhD in poetry if poetry was going to be the thing to miss out. So the thing to go had to be some other aspect of my life. Housework was number one on the list. I’ve done some, obviously. Practically, it’s hard to see how you could do none at all for four years. In return for me doing her business paperwork, Amie pays for a cleaner to come in for a couple of hours a week. She concentrates on the lounge, kitchen, bathroom etc. And that’s wonderful, a load off… But the house hasn’t had a really deep clean for four years. This week I’ve put together a plan of attack, one room at a time. I’m going to be starting with the kitchen, cleaning out cupboards, chucking stuff that’s out of date, sending surplus plates, dishes etc. to the charity shops. I’ll start when I come back from Coniston towards the end of May. It’s been four years: I’m in no hurry to get started. This week, before I go to Coniston, I’ll finish putting together my plan of attack. It’s almost doing the work. Nearly. Planning is an important stage, after all. Isn’t it?

On Saturday I came south to Peterborough with Amie. We came to visit my son Richard and a friend, Maria. We all went to Hunstanton, a Norfolk seaside town, yesterday. The weather was lovely, clear blue skies and hardly a cloud, just one or two, low down near the horizon. We went to an amusement arcade and spent too many 2p coins on those machines that push coins and prizes off down the shoot, if you place your coin in exactly the right spot. Which of course, you rarely do. I did win a few coins—extra goes on the machine—and a tiny stick of Hunstanton rock. I also had a couple of spins on the wheel of fortune. I won 500 and then 1000 prize tokens. A little boy was watching me collect the 1000 tokens, his eyes were saucers: it did look an impressive amount of tickets spewing out of the machine. He asked his mum if he could have a go. I saw him a few minutes later. He was so excited: he’d also won 1000 tokens. I was happy for him. We changed our tokens for a magic set, including a top hat. We went to a fish and chip café for tea, and Richard entertained us with magic tricks while we waited for our meals. Were we impressed? Don’t give up your day job, son!

So I’m writing this from a hotel room in the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough. It’s a three-star listing, same as the Britannia Hilary and I stayed in in Birmingham in February; but it’s as different from that Birmingham hotel as Christmas cake is from dry bread. I have a huge bed, a long, long desk area; there’s a sitting area near the window; there’s a bath and shower that I’m fairly confident won’t flood the rest of the hotel room. The décor is lovely. This is what a three star hotel looks like in the real world: the Britannia was definitely from an alternative universe. Richard and Maria are meeting us here for breakfast at 9.00 a.m.

In other news, we heard from Kei Miller this week, with the entry codes and titles of the winning poems for the Poets&Players annual competition. Kei was late sending the results, and has had to pull out of the celebration event for personal reasons; which is really sad, because sharing the stage to perform your work alongside a leading big-name poet is part of the prize; but it can’t be helped, these things happen. With only one week to go before the event, we didn’t see how we could find a suitable replacement in time for the event on the 18th; so we’ve been forced to cancel, with apologies to our winning poets and our regular audience. The names of the poets and their winning poems will be on our website by Saturday May 18th, so watch out for news: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/We’re planning to incorporate the winning poets/poems into our next event, which will be on September 21st. I’ll post details nearer the time. In the meantime, please pass on news of the cancellation of Saturday’s event. The workshop with Keith Hutson will still be going ahead in the morning, so if you were planning to come to that, please do. I believe there are still one or two places left on the workshop if anyone else wants to come. And the P&P committee will be having a lunchtime meeting in the Whitworth café to discuss the rest of this year’s programme so if you’re coming to our workshop we might see you there.

Lastly, huge congratulations to Simon Armitage, who was revealed this week as the new Poet Laureate, taking the baton from Carol Ann Duffy. Simon was also one of my tutors when I did the MA in Creative Writing at MMU a few years back. I know he’ll be a great successor to Carol Ann, who has done a wonderful job in promoting poetry at grass roots level, making poetry an accessible art form. I know Simon will do a great job in carrying that particular baton.

I’m getting a real taste for life after PhD. In the old cliché, this is the first week of the rest of my life. So far it’s pretty satisfying.

A poem. It’s one of my ‘Alternative Mothers’: a favourite of mine from literature, Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’. When I wrote this I intended to invent a feisty daughter for a feisty mother: the Wife of Bath is nothing if not feisty. But as I wrote the poem, the daughter came through as really bitter and abandoned. Robert Frost said something about if there was no surprise for the writer, there’d be no surprise for the reader. This poem was a surprise to its writer from the outset. I feel so sorry for this abandoned daughter, living out her life in a convent, cut off from society, an embarrassment and a shame to be hidden away. I love the Wife of Bath; but she’d have made a hellish and selfish alternative mother, I think.

 

Alternative Mother #3
Alysoun, Wife of Bath

I’m your secret but not your shame,
clearly. You had me in this motherhouse
when you were just a girl. Now I’m
your skeleton closeted in a catacomb

and you’re married off, no questions asked,
to some old bloke firing blanks, so no more
birthing cramps for you, no heirs to share

the takings and I’m stuck here
suffocating for your sin while you take
your choicest quoniam to the market place,
making sure your remedies for love bring
no more secrets. It’s just me then, enduring

 

Vigils,                         Lauds,                       Nones,

Vespers,                                Compline,

 

The Great Silence.


Rachel Davies
2018

 

choicest quoniam’= a woman’s sexual organs. A modern derivative might possibly be ‘quim’.

 

I might just have a cheeky beer

This week, on Tuesday, I met my support team for the last time. I caught the tram into Manchester. I was early, I had time for a coffee on the way to MMU. I called into Java near Oxford Rd. Station, read the anonymous submissions for the Stanza meeting while I drank my coffee, making notes on the poems as I read. After coffee, I walked on to the university. I was still a few minutes early so I sat in All Saints Park in the sunshine, winding the clock down. A woman came and sat beside me: her daughter was resitting an exam and she — the mum — was feeling nervous. She was having a cheeky beer while she waited. ‘I’m sixty-five,’ she said, ‘I don’t care what people think any more.’ We talked while we both waited, then just before 2.00, I left her and her tinny to go to my meeting.

We discussed my redrafted thesis, the one I’d reorganised under sub-headings. To cut a long story short, the redraft works well on the whole. We went through it together: there were still a few minor edits, but altogether it’s ready for submission. Phew! The news I was hoping for, as I only have a couple of weeks to spare and I still have to arrange to have it bound. We talked about submission, about the viva voce, about the final process. And then it was over: my last meeting with the team: sad and wonderful. I gave them both a hug as I left: I couldn’t have got through the work without them.  I’m really on the home straight now. I left there and treated myself to another coffee. I thought it might have involved cake, but I still have plenty of St. Ives fat to get rid of, so I settled for a pot of fruit instead. Oh Lord, sometimes I’m just too sensible.

So, on the PhD front, the rest of the week has been all about doing those last minute edits suggested by the team. I decided to get on with it straight away: the sooner started, the sooner it will all be over. So on Wednesday I got down to work at about 8.30 a.m., going through the advice on the redrafted thesis, addressing the team’s suggestions. I worked till about 10.45 then stopped for a brew. When I came back to work half an hour later, MacBook had had some kind of psychotic incident. It was frozen. I rebooted it, it was fine. Except all the edits I’d done on the thesis before the break were lost. When the document was recovered, it was as it had been before the work I’d put in in the morning, proof if you need it that I am Sisyphus. I keep pushing that boulder uphill; and down it rolls again. So, after having my own minor meltdown, on I pushed, redoing all the work I’d already done once, and by lunchtime all the minor edits suggested by the team were finished. After lunch I worked on the poems, revisited a couple I was less happy with. I took out two of the poems I’d added since St. Ives: Jean felt the ink was still too wet on the page, they weren’t quite ready to earn their space; and anyway, she said, you should keep them back because you’ll need a couple of poems to work on after you submit. The creative stream might slow to a dribble; I know from doing my MA that it happens. So I took them out: it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this led to more contents page rejigging. I keep pushing that rock! By the end of Wednesday, I had only the contents to re-re-re-edit, and the footnotes to revisit. I saved the work and left it for the day. I came back to it on Saturday morning. I re-did the contents, went through the footnotes with a nit comb, checked through the whole document for those annoying little wriggly red and green lines that the grammar/spell check puts under perceived — usually American-style — errors. By lunchtime I was happy with it. Later today I’ll be printing out a full version, poems and all, and reading it through closely to check for errors the spell/grammar check didn’t spot. And then…I might just have a cheeky beer myself.

I rang the book-binding shop this week, I’ve arranged to take the thesis in this coming Wednesday to have it buckram bound, ready for submission. I’ll have it back the week after, when I’ll take it straight to MMU for the final submission. Yes, I know I said I’d be glad to see the back of it. I may have lied. It’s a huge responsibility to send your offspring out into the world to earn their living. I’m having empty-nest syndrome already, and it hasn’t even left home yet.

In other news: poetry. I sent out the anonymous poems to my stanza poets last weekend, ready for the meeting on Tuesday. There were some seriously good poems in the set this month. I hadn’t had time to read them properly until I was having my coffee in Java: the week had been dominated by preparing for the PhD meeting. But I did read them, and make notes for discussion at the meeting. There were six of us in a rather crowded Buffet Bar. I book the small room at the end of the corridor for our meeting. There were two groups of drinkers in there when I arrived. I told them we had the room booked from 7.30, that we’d be discussing poetry. A man at one of the tables said, ‘that’s OK, we won’t mind, we’ll be talking. You won’t disturb us.’ Erm! It was one of those surreal moments. They stayed: to be fair the Buffet Bar was so full I don’t think there was anywhere else for them to go; but we had to discuss our poems against a back-drop of (rather loud) conversation. He was right: we didn’t disturb his conversation. I wish I could say his conversation didn’t disturb our poems.

On Thursday I met Hilary for lunch: we were planning our Line Break week in Coniston. We go straight after the Poets&Players competition celebration event on the 18th. We’ll be planning for a couple of writing workshops we’re leading in June; doing some writing of our own; working on a commissioned poem for Lydgate Stitchers, a poem to go with a lovely mural they’re sewing to commemorate the development of Lydgate as a village. We planned meals, prepared an online shopping list, decided what we need to pack for writing and cooking while we’re away. We’re planning a visit to Leighton Moss bird reserve, a boat trip on one of the Lakes—don’t mind which one, although Ullswater is a distinct possibility. We’re going to visit Long Meg and Her Daughters, an ancient stone circle near Keswick—we’ve both written poems about them—and a working flourmill close by. Of course, everywhere we go, our notebooks will go with us. We’ll have a productive week.

Lastly, I sent some poems out to earn their bread. I sent to the Battered Moons competition: I had a poem commended in this competition a couple of years ago, so I thought I’d give it another go. I also sent to a pamphlet competition, a set of twenty poems. This one is a highly competitive competition, so I don’t have great expectations of winning. But as the old Lottery ad used to say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it.’ I heard I was long-listed in the Cinnamon pamphlet competition, so the poems are close to getting themselves noticed. I’ll keep chipping away: one day they’ll make publication as a book.

And so, a PhD poem. I’m going to give you the first poem I ever wrote for the PhD collection, way back in 2016, when I was just starting out. It’s about making butter. I grew up on a farm in the Fens, and we sometimes used to make butter, more for our own use than for sale, I think. Looking back, it was probably still in the time of post-war rationing; I suppose I could Google this to be sure? The job for my sisters and me was to turn the handle on the churn. When our arm got tired, we passed it on to the next older sister in the line, until the cream eventually turned to butter. Mum’s job was to take the butter from the churn and knock it into shape—literally—on a cold board. I’ve posted a version of this one before I think; but this is the polished version, ready to go. I’m posting it as a celebration: the first poem to celebrate the end-game of the work.

 

Churning

See the churn, a pot-bellied pig on wood block feet
scrubbed, sterilized, the iron handle fixed to paddles.

It has the sickly smell of breast fed babies. Now,
hear the cream shushing like a tide as the handle

turns the paddles. Enthusiasm becomes effort
in the sweat and ache of cream thickening.

Pass the handle to the next sibling in line, up to Big Sis
the alchemist who churns base cream into gold.

Watch the ceremonial handing over of butter to mother
to knock into shape with wooden pats on a cold board,

see the magic of that emerging image of yellow, rolled, ridged
its wheatsheaf or thistle print, its bold statement of luxury.

Rachel Davies
2016

Please make it stop!

I started this blog to reflect on ‘PhD, poetry and life’. It seemed a long three years when I started the PhD, now, suddenly, the finishing line is in sight. But I’m a bit stuck, like in one of those dreams where you know you have to run, but your feet are held in thick, black molasses and you can’t move forward. I can see the end, but I can’t seem to get there. This week, it’s been all about the finishing touches; but I’ve been ridiculously ‘trial and error’ about it. Having incorporated three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection, I edited the poetry collection’s contents page to reflect the changes. Then, yes only THEN,  I decided I needed a contents list for the whole thesis, so I wrote that. And, of course, as any sensible, rational person would have seen but I didn’t, adding that contents page shunted everything up a page, so the collection contents was out of sync with the page numbers and I had to edit that again! At least I hadn’t edited the footnote references to the collection poems; so that’s the last job I have to do. I hope. A meeting has been arranged with the support team for this Tuesday; will it be my last, or will I come away with more work to do? I’m like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods for his hubris by being made to roll a huge stone uphill, just for it to roll down again when he reached the top. He had to keep pushing that stone uphill for eternity. Perhaps my own boulder is that contents list, those footnotes. And all because I wanted a PhD I didn’t need and have no intention of using: hubris. Later today I’ll be editing the footnotes. Let that be the end of it. Please let that be the end of it!

Thankfully, there is poetry; and there’s been a lot of poetry this week. On Tuesday, I went into Manchester with Hilary to meet up with another poet friend, Natalie Burdett. We met at Gorilla in Manchester for lunch and to workshop some poems. Hilary and I took poems we wrote recently in St. Ives, at the writing week hosted by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. Natalie is currently doing a PhD from MMU as well. Her theme is geography and place in poetry and she brought three ‘place’ poems about her hometown in the midlands. Natalie’s poems are vivid descriptions, almost filmic. It was a good meeting with useful feedback. I took poems I thought were quite weak; but their feedback made me think they might have legs after all. I’ll be revisiting them later today, when I am planning to submit some poems to competitions. I’m not sure these poems be included, but they’re not definitely excluded, so that’s a step forward.

I also sent out my stanza mailing this week. Our Poetry Society Stanza meets every last Tuesday of the month at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; our next meeting is on Tuesday of this coming week. We are having an anonymous workshop this week: members email a fairly new poem to me by an agreed deadline. The poem must be one the poet would welcome feedback on: I remember one workshop where a poet brought his magnum opus to the group and got very upset when we offered constructive feedback. He thought it was perfection on a page, it had been published, he said. Well, why bring it to a workshop then? It’s not a space for polished poems. I put all the poems I receive into an anonymous document and send to all poets who submit and I’ll be sending that document out later today to give folk the chance to read and make notes before the meeting on Tuesday. It works well, because if you don’t know who wrote a poem, you’re less likely to be cagey about offering feedback, so it really is constructive. I’ve received six poems this month, which is a result, given that our group has been on the ecological red list, facing extinction in the recent past; especially as I also received two apologies from members. We are still on the endangered list, but I think we’ll survive.

Yesterday, Saturday, was Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Every year we commission new poems, inviting chosen poets to write poems to a particular theme. This year our commission was ‘Reimagining the City’. We invited Mona Arshi, Degna Stone, Will Harris and Maryam Hessavi to respond to the commission, and their poems were truly remarkable; the poems are available on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co  Yesterday the poets read these poems, and other of their work, to a large audience in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park. It’s a lovely venue, but the weather was awful yesterday, so the squirrels and parakeets had stayed indoors out of the rain and wind. But the poetry was lovely; Mona Arshi read for the first time from her new collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry, 2019), which is published on Tuesday 30thApril. This was her first reading from this fantastic collection. You can order a copy here: https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/42309/ The ‘players’ this month were Paula Darwish and Serpil Kiliç, two musicians/composers of British-Turkish heritage. They sang Turkish/Kurdish folk songs, accompanied by a guitar and a kind of Turkish lute or bouzouki called a baglama. Their singing voices were astounding, it was a lovely accompaniment to the poetry. You can find samples of their music here: https://www.countryandeastern.net/artist/serpil-kilic/

So, that’s another good week. In between all this I’ve been fighting microbes, mostly successfully I think. I feel as if I’m winning in the lymphocyte wars anyway. I can’t afford to let the enemy in at the gates!

Here’s a poem: another one I wrote in St. Ives, one I took to the workshop with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday.  The exercise was to address a group of people in the poem: I chose to address that group of people who think us oldies should just go away, not be seen. I have an allergy to the uniform of the aged: it brings me out in hives, I won’t wear it, ever. I won’t be invisible, ever. This is a tongue-in-cheek poem about that, about not being invisible; it has humour, but it carries a serious message. Rise, all you ageing women, rise and be seen; rise and be disgraceful!

Growing Old Disgracefully

 I won’t be the one you decide I should be.
I’ll wear my glitter Docs, patchwork jacket,
that pink and tangerine top over slick black tights.
I promise you mutton dressed as lamb is not how
I see myself.

I won’t wear your uniform of the silver vote,
I won’t wear magnolia paint or
barley white to blend in with your walls.

Honestly?
Invisibility isn’t a default state for women over sixty.
Keep your beige, keep your Damart; keep
your Brevit shoes and Velcro slippers,
your flesh coloured NHS frames,
your Regatta fleeces, bland windcheaters,
Pakamacs and Rainmate hats;
stuff your amorphous crimplene.

Give me Airwair, give me Red or Dead
give me colour, pattern, flair, hear me sing,
watch me dance. I want to be shocking.

Beware: one morning you’ll realise
you stacked year upon year
until it’s the uniform or be damned.
I promise you I’d rather be damned. Loudly.
And visibly. Outrageously
and with disgraceful panache.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Regressing to Normal

It’s started. That feeling that I am allowed to do other things. That post-PhD feeling. Again. It’s not even anti-climax: it’s more excitement at being able to do mundane stuff and take my time doing it because there’s no deadline. In other words, I’m regressing to normal.

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Hard at work in St. Ives: photograph by John Foggin.

Sunday was spent travelling back from St. Ives. It was a thoroughly miserable morning as we waited for the train from St. Erth to Plymouth: cold, barely above freezing; and wet, the rain was lashing. An appropriate day to leave a wonderful week, really; like leaving summer behind and falling back into gloomy winter. Our journey was uneventful; which was more than could be said for the poets who went home on the Saturday. Most had horrendous journeys of delay, cancellation and general disruption. So we were lucky to have booked that extra night. We had a lovely picnic of disgustingly unhealthy snacks including a small flagon each of Scrumpy cider Hilary had bought at the cider farm on the last day of the holiday.

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A little light picnic for the train.

We were in Manchester by 5.00 p.m. and home by 6.00.

This week I wrote the ‘front matter’ as they call it on my Kindle, for my thesis: the pages that tell you about the body of the work. I wrote the title page and acknowledgements, put them together with the 300 word abstract, placed them at the front of the thesis. I also placed three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection. So now all I need is to edit the contents page for the poetry and the page numbers in footnotes that contain references to the poetry collection; add an overall contents page and voila! I hope it’s done. I sent the new poems to Jean Sprackland, just so she’s aware that I’ve added them since we last spoke. I’m waiting on a meeting with my team re. the redrafted thesis I sent them, but given that it has to be submitted by May 18th, I’m hoping it’s about done. I hardly dare think so, but I hope it’s done.

So, apart from that little burst of academic activity, my week overall has been mundane. I’ve started to clear up my study. It looks like an intellectual war zone: books and paper copies of the thesis on my desk, and on the sofa awaiting the shredder. I had a big shred-fest on Good Friday. I felt like an assassin shredding working copies of the thesis, but I have them all, saved at the various stages of redrafting,  stored in the iCloud. I kept one copy, the latest; and I kept the copy that my Director of Studies had annotated by hand; and I kept the page of advice I was given last time I met with the team. But all other paper was shredded and binned. I filed letters, put books back on the bookshelf: I have too many books now, need more bookshelves. It’s the scurge of a bibliophile, the continually growing need for book shelf space. Because we can keep buying and reading books in perpetuity, but we can’t bear to get rid of any. It would be like getting rid of friends. So I now have books piled in front of books on the bookshelves. I know I’m not the only one.

I’ve also been batch cooking. I bought lots of veg when I shopped this week, so I spent Saturday making vegetable and lentil curries, pasta sauces, casseroles. I even managed to get them into the freezer the same day. I am a domestic goddess. In short, I have glimpsed the future and it is domestic. At the moment, I like it; I expect to get bored with it very quickly, but for now it is a refreshing, and relaxing, respite from four years of brain work.

So that’s it, a week of winding down. A week of life-post-PhD practice. A glimpse over the parapet into a future without study. I have lots of non-academic reading on my Kindle; but I’m saving that for after the assessment. I still have to keep in touch with the academic books until after the external examination. The Handmaid’s Tale and other reading treats can wait a few more weeks.

Here’s another poem I wrote in St. Ives. For this poem we had to think of a significant incident from our lives and write about it for ten minutes; just tell the story. Then we left it alone for a while. Later we had to tell the story again without looking at the first draft. Then, referring to both drafts, we had to weave them together into a unity. I wrote my first version in the first person; the second version in the third person. So my ‘weaving’ is between viewpoints, first person in italics, third person in plain font. It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t think this is the best example of it, but it’s the only one I have.

 

Loaded Questions

Look carefully, you might see a young girl picking violets
under the hedgerow by the bus stop. You might know
Dad’s in hospital again, recurring chest infection.
You might be surprised I’m not concerned:bed rest,
antibiotics. You might be surprised: I’m picking violets
a posy for her mum, perhaps. You’ll probably hear that
recognisable grind of diesel You might hear the bump
of something solid bouncing on the flatbed. Look,
a Land Rover, pulling up behind her, are you concerned?
You should be concerned. Oh Lord, it’s Mr Battersby,
the boss, oh lord he’s going to speak. Listen to the driver
ask how’s your dad. I’ve/she’s been taught to tug a forelock,
show respect. How’s your dad, he asks again. You’ll see
she’s flustered. Well…he’s still got pneumonia. As if
the boss doesn’t know it’s only been two days. He’s still…
You’ll see she’s flustered, as if…I’m trying to defend him
from something but she doesn’t understand what it is.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

 

 

 

Poetry, cider and an excess of seagull poo

I’m in St. Ives in Cornwall. Hilary and I travelled down here by train on Sunday. We had to change trains at Birmingham New Street. The train was packed and as we were trying to get off the train, other passengers were pushing to get on. Someone helped us with our bags, but I nearly got knocked over on the platform, which was crowded with people so you couldn’t move out of the way; in fact it was only the density of people that saved me from falling. They were all wanting a place on the train I’d just left, but there wasn’t any space on the train, so they couldn’t get on until someone got off anyway. It was chaos, so we upgraded to first class for the rest of the journey. It cost us £15 each. Well, be rude not to. We arrived at the hotel on Sunday evening, in time for the evening meal.

I’ve been on a poetry writing course led by Kim Moore and Carola Luther which just got better as the week went on. I’ve had a room with a sea view. The weather has been lovely, sunny and [mostly] warm. The food has been good this year. The hotel took on a new chef team in the autumn, and the food has improved no end. It was so good I think I’ve gone up at least one dress size. And all worth it for the poetry. It’s been a wonderful week; and I have some new poems that I’m excited by.

The theme of the week was ‘Intimacy, distance and perspective’ in poems. We met as a group on Monday at four o’clock: our daily cream tea time. At 4.30 we started the first workshop, exploring what the words of the theme mean. We didn’t do any writing in that workshop, but Kim set us a task to work on in our own time: to write a ‘meandering’ poem, one that wanders around its own country lanes to get to its point. I wrote mine in bed on Tuesday morning, early, while the sun rose over the sea. I wrote it with a pencil, in my notebook. I often write straight from the keyboard, but it’s difficult to meander at the keyboard, the inner editor is too close to the surface, so I wrote with a pencil, then typed it up on the MacBook.

Tuesday and Wednesday Carola and Kim ran workshops that involved reading and discussing poems and then writing poems inspired by our reading. On Tuesday, I wrote a couple of drafts that might become poems in the future; by Wednesday I was warming up, drafting poems with ambition, poems I could see making something of themselves. I wrote a poem about being lost in the book, in my case Alice in Wonderland.I like that draft already, not far to go to be complete. Thursday was a bit different. We had a discussion about Frank O’hara’s ‘personism’ style of poetry, a style that requires the intimacy of writing to one other, as you would in a letter or postcard. We read a lovely O’hara poem, ‘The Day Lady Died’, to illustrate his ‘personism’. Then we were sent into St. Ives to observe and write our own poems in the personist style. Hilary and I sat in a beach bar with a Rattler Cider, observing and taking notes. A woman digging like she meant it in a huge hole she’d made on the beach turned up in several of the poems. She was extraordinary, throwing spadefuls of sand behind her like a mad thing. I wrote my poem when I woke at 4.00 on Friday; it’s a productive time of day for me, and I have a poem I love. Yup, the woman in the hole is in there. It needs a bit more work, but it’s almost done.

As well as the workshops, we have been meeting daily in small groups to discuss and offer feedback on our early drafts. This was really useful. Sometimes you are too close to a poem, you can’t see its flaws. Of course, it’s your poem and you don’t have to act on the feedback, but at least you have your eyes opened and can implement the advice or not; you can act on some of the advice, all or none of it. On Friday morning we met as a whole group. We had to bring one poem from the week to read to the group and have it discussed and critiqued by the group. I took the poem I’d written at 4.00 a.m. and the feedback I received from the group was really useful. I’m quite excited about this poem.

Apart from the writing, there were readings organised for the evenings after dinner. Kim and Carola read from their work on Tuesday evening. Very different poets, their readings were wonderful. On Wednesday, Ann Gray came to read. Ann won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2018; her pamphlet’s called I Wish I Had More Mothers(Smith Doorstop Books, 2018). So I had to buy that, get it signed, didn’t I? Ann read from her two collections and the pamphlet. On Thursday, course members read two poems each of their own work that they’d brought from home. I read a couple of my ‘alternative mothers’. On Friday we read a couple of poems we’d drafted from the week. These were good evenings, such a variety of poems from fourteen poets. And interesting to see how fourteen poets can come up with fourteen distinct solutions to the same prompt. It was fascinating to try to match the poems people read to the prompts from the week. The woman in the hole in the beach was a give-away in some of the poems; others were less easy to spot.

There has been free time in the afternoons to do the ‘holiday’ bit. Hilary and I walked into St. Ives two or three times, looked in the lovely shops, spent money we didn’t intend to spend on things we didn’t need but we wanted. I’m going home with four new tops, a skirt and two pairs of earrings I didn’t bring with me. On two visits to the town centre we were pooped on by seagulls and had to come back to the hotel for a shower before dinner, and to wash clothes that were bombarded. They keep telling me it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird; perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket?

Yesterday, most of the poets went home after breakfast, but Hilary and I stayed an extra night. We went to the Healey’s cider farm, home of the Rattler cider, between Truro and Newquay. We took the bus to Truro then a taxi out to the cider farm. Oh my, the bus. We were abused by an old man for sitting in the seats reserved for ‘older passengers and those less able to stand’: we both have our own mobility issues, not that it’s his business. As he came down the bus to sit in a similar seat across the aisle, he said we shouldn’t be sitting there, we weren’t disabled. Hilary showed him her walking stick and he said a walking stick didn’t mean anything. He kept moaning on to the man next too him about us taking up the seats reserved for old folk—I’m 72 by the way—even though the man next to him looked about sixty, didn’t even have a walking stick and appeared able bodied. After a couple of minutes I said to him ‘excuse me, would you not talk about us, you know nothing about us.’ Bloody women, he snarled, so perhaps it was gender and not invisible disability that offended him. Bloody misogynist, we might have said but didn’t. The incident didn’t spoil our day. At the cider farm, we had a ride behind a tractor around the orchards; toured the production line and museum; tasted lots of samples; and had a complimentary pint of cider with our cream teas at the end of the tour. The taxi collected us at 3.00 p.m. and we took the relatively uneventful journey back to the hotel.

It was strange in the hotel last night, all the poets had gone and just Hilary and me left of our group. We felt a bit bereft until a lovely couple from London joined us at our table. We got to talking, and by the end of the meal, we’d sold them one of our books, so that was nice. Poetry is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

I’m going to give you a poem from the week, so naturally it’s an early draft. I don’t know if it will mature, if I’ll develop it or leave it as it is. Either way I’m not planning on sending it out to earn its keep any time soon. But it was fun to write. It’s a poem that addresses your own body directly, and I guess poems don’t come more intimate than that. Here’s mine:

Oh, Body

I’ll not give up on you
now you’re no longer pert.

He said my stretch marks were beautiful,
a poem on childbirth. Body, you and I both know

that’s bullshit. Poems are art and you, Body,
are science, a physiological record of degeneration.

You started to die the minute they cut
the umbilical cord. But dying, I’m pleased to say,

is a slow process. And long may it continue.
I’m sorry I didn’t always put you first:

I broke you, cut you, squeezed your feet
into too-tight shoes, soaked you in long hot baths.

On the whole, though, I think
we’re doing alright, Body, you and me.

Rachel Davies
April 2019