It could be worse: I could be Rhona.

Sometimes, people ask me how I fit so much into seven days. I don’t know; my life is full and I’m happy; because it’s full of stuff that matters to me. This week: poetry, PhD and life in big forkfuls.

The Poetry Carousel continued on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday morning I was in a workshop run by Kim Moore. The workshop addressed different ways of seeing in a poem; taking different viewpoints. Kim’s workshops are always thought provoking and this one was no disappointment. I wrote two poems that might make it into the creative element of the PhD, which is always a good thing. One of my poems was about ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’, a sideshow at the fair; no-one had heard of her, so it fell on barren soil when I read it out. Rhona was a woman who sat in a pen, inside a tent, with a few drugged-up rats. I remember her dressed in a leopard skin, Tarzan-like; but my daughter insists she was naked, because when she and her brothers laughed, Rhona said—in a broad Liverpool accent—‘You’re supposed to be looking at me rats!’. Anyway, she had this enormous thigh bone—it looked like a diplodocus thigh!—that she stirred the sleepy rats with. That’s it, that was the act. But no-one in the workshop knew her. Kim suggested I turn her into an ‘alternative mother’, and that’s what I’ll be trying later today.

We had the afternoon free. Hilary and I took a walk to Kent’s Bank railway station: there’s a small art gallery/gift shop there. When I say ‘short walk’, it took us all of five minutes to get there. The sun was shining, it was cold: one of those winter days that make winter nearly bearable. When we got back to the hotel, I did some more reading—Carolyn Jess-Cooke—before dinner. After our evening meal, Sean O’Brien and Kim both read, followed by ‘Tada’—Sarah, a course member, and her friend singing country, their husbands on guitars. Sarah has a rich country voice; it was a good after-dinner event. To end the evening, a friend from my Poetry Society Stanza and two other course members performed ‘The Lion and Albert’: voice and ukuleles. I was so tired I just wanted to go to bed but I stayed for the performance because it was Pat, who only got her ukulele last week, apparently, but she has taught herself to play. It was a bit incongruous to hear Nicholas, urbane, cravated, ‘received pronunciation’, reading in Stanley Holloway’s voice. Altogether it was a lovely evening.

On Monday I was up early to pack my case, load up the car and check out of my room before breakfast. This is the last year the carousel will be held at Abbot Hall: the hotel was sold earlier this year and will be upgraded to five-star early next year. Next December’s carousel will be held at a different venue. I’ve always asked for the same room when we’ve been to Abbot Hall, so I was quite sad to say goodbye to it. Hilary and I are determined to call in next year en route to the new venue, to see what they’ve done with it. Anyway, after breakfast it was the last workshop, with Greta Stoddart, one of my favourite contemporary poets. This workshop was my favourite of the weekend: looking at the importance of the line break, and experimenting with different places to break the line. It was full-on for two hours. I’m pretty sure I have some portfolio poems from that one too. Then after lunch we headed home.

At six o’clock we were out again: Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Carol Ann read from her new collection, Sincerity;Manchester Met Writing School members read before the break: I was particularly struck by Ian Walker, whose wonderful poetry addresses the sex-life of invertebrates. If you haven’t listened to poetry about the sex life of the Californian Sea Hare, a giant sea slug, you haven’t lived! Aplysia Californica can grow up to 75cm long and weigh up to 7kg! Imagine that big boy among your bedding plants! Zafar Kunial was the headliner after the break: Zafar started a PhD with me in 2015, so should have been submitting about now. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask how it was going. His reading was good: he’s much more relaxed as a presenter of his work than when I first heard him in Ilkley about four years  ago. I’m reading—with headliners Paul Henry and Brian Briggs—at the next CAD and Friends, 14thJanuary, Royal Exchange Theatre. It’s a sell-out already: they must have heard I’m coming!

Tuesday and Saturday were dedicated entirely to the PhD. I was doing the nitty-gritty reference checks, making sure they were in the right order, and in the MHRA in-house style. The colons, commas, brackets are all important in writing the footnotes: a missed comma could be the difference between pass and fail, I’ve been told. So I printed off my bibliography and checked off the books as I referenced them in the work. The trouble with cutting and pasting is, it messes with your footnotes. The first reference for a book is a full copyright reference, with subsequent references in an abbreviated style. But when you cut and paste passages, the footnote moves with the cut and paste, so you can end up with subsequent—abbreviated—references coming before the full reference. I checked them through thoroughly and systematically and I’m happy that they’re all in the right order now—as long as I’ve done with cutting and pasting! It took two full days of minute secretarial work to get it to a place where I’m happy with it, but it’s done. I’d hate to fail the PhD because my footnotes didn’t come up to scratch. So that means today I can concentrate on the creative aspect, getting the poems I drafted last weekend written up and polished for the portfolio. I’m really looking forward to that.

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Christmas officially began this week. On Wednesday Bill and I went to lunch with Hilary and her husband, David. We went to Green’s vegetarian restaurant in Didsbury: their Christmas menu was wonderful, we ate so much I probably didn’t need to eat again all week. Except, I put up my Christmas tree on Thursday in time for the visit of my friend Joan. It’s pretty minimalist: I have two cats! In the evening we went to Amie’s Black Ladd for the Christmas menu–ate so much again I didn’t need to eat until New Year. Except, Joan stayed over and we went out for breakfast at Albion Farm on Friday morning. And I’d just like to say to the person who scraped my car on their way out of the car park: I hope you got four punctures on the way home. And head lice. And toothache. But apart from that I’m fine with it.

Jean Sprackland got in touch in the week. One of her Creative Writing MA students is thinking about doing a PhD and she asked if I’d be willing to talk to him about some concerns he has. Of course I will: as anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows, this hasn’t always been a smooth ride for me: in fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve come close to giving up on a couple of occasions: thankfully that negativity didn’t last long, I’m no quitter. But it’s important to go into this huge commitment with your eyes open: I think I was blinkered, rose coloured specs and all that. I breezed through both my Masters degrees without too much angst and I assumed a PhD would be more of the same. It isn’t. It’s a whole different ball game. It asks a level of expertise in your subject that I still don’t feel I have; and a commitment of work that is crushing sometimes. Bill said this week, ‘I really miss you when you’re working.’ PhD’s like that: it takes you away from your real life, you have to immerse yourself in it completely. You need to know that from the start. Knowing it wouldn’t have made any difference, I would still have done it: it’s a personal challenge, like Everest, it’s there and I’m driven to conquer it. The difficulty of the challenge is a lot easier to live with now I’m approaching the finishing line; but knowing the depth of challenge, and that everyone experiences the angst and it’s not just you, might have saved my self-esteem at the start. Jean knows all this, and she still asked me to talk to him. I’ll be up-front and tell it as I experienced it. I’m still standing, after all.

Here’s the first draft of my ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ poem. Well, technically it’s the second draft, but it is as I wrote it in my notebook on Sunday last. I’ll be reworking it later today into an ‘alternative mother’ poem; but in the meantime, you can have it as it came out of my pencil end:

Rhona the Ratgirl Reveals All But Her Ambition

I imagine her world is
this stall in this tent
this animal skin
this thigh bone
these rats.

She reclines on a bale of straw
draped in an animal skin
in a distant approximation to sexy.

She pokes the somnambulant rats
with a three-foot-long thigh bone.
They’re too high on chemicals to notice.

Imagine the ambition it took to become Rhona
then just ask yourself…

Rachel Davies
December 2018

The howl of poetry…

I’m writing this from the deep dark of Kent’s Bank near Grange over Sands, where I’m enjoying a weekend of poetry on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. We have four high-class poets here running workshops for us. So far I’ve had workshops with Andrew McMillan—putting the ‘queer’ back into poetry; and Sean O’Brien— reflecting on the surprise in those moments of ‘nothing much’ that confront us. Today I have a workshop run by Greta Stoddart, and tomorrow with Kim Moore. When did I get to be so lucky? It’s 5.00, it’s cold, it’s quiet and the world’s asleep: a perfect scene for writing.

As usual, I’ve had a busy—and productive—week. Having worked on the introduction to the thesis on Saturday last, I gave it a rest on Sunday—my son Michael’s birthday—and worked on the creative element instead. I completed the necessary RD9 for my meeting with Jean Sprackland, then spent a lovely morning working on some of the edits she’d suggested at the meeting. It’s my favourite part of the PhD, the drafting, redrafting and editing of poems. Creativity is such a balm for the soul. Everyone should have some creative aspect to their lives. I’m not suggesting everyone takes up poetry, that’s not the point. Creativity comes in many guises. My daughter, Amie, is currently teaching herself to knit. My friend Pauline ‘does’ crafts: lacemaking, spinning, greetings cards. Another friend, Hilary, is a wonderful baker and makes her own clothes as well as being a fine poet.  We have to find our own creative space. Mine is poetry. It’s a big space. Having worked on the creative element on Sunday, I now have to completely redo the contents page of the collection, because I moved one of the poems to a different position, and now the contents numbering is awry. Ho hum, worse problems to have!

On Tuesday I played hooky and went with Hilary to Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet, where I bought a gorgeous pair of flowery Doc Martens; a pair of ridiculously cheap embroidered Next jeans; and a Radley handbag, some of the proceeds of which go to the British Heart Foundation. Yes, I am the owner of a Radley bag! I carry the Scottie dog with pride. It was so good to take time out, ‘do lunch’ and spend time with my friend. This will become my life, post-PhD!

One day off piste is enough for anyone though, so on Wednesday I was back on it, working on the conclusion to the thesis. I started a separate document, making notes for my conclusion and realised that what I was actually doing was writing my conclusion. So I cut and pasted it into the thesis. I’m not sure I’ve been ‘summative’ enough: I don’t seem to reach any ‘conclusions’, those original contributions to knowledge that the PhD is all about. But it is an ending of sorts. By the end of Wednesday I really could see the finishing line in the middle distance. I had too many words again, so I had to cut and paste some of the body of the work into longish footnotes: footnotes are excluded from the word count. I asked Hilary to read it through for me: she’s been dropping hints for weeks about wanting to, so I knew it wasn’t an imposition. I sent her the thesis and the collection of poems. She’s brought them away to Kent’s Bank to read in those free afternoons. I’m excited for her feedback.

Thursday I thought I’d better do some ironing, so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by walking around Abbots Hall hotel in my vest and pants. Ironing still hurts my back, so I took some hot water bottle therapy afterwards. I left packing my case until Friday morning. On Friday I picked Hilary up at 10.30 and drove us up the M6 to Grange. The weather was mostly foul, but with the occasional short, sharp burst of sunlight that produced some wonderful rainbows en route. We had lunch in the Hazelmere café in Grange, the two course Christmas menu; took a quick look around the shops before driving to the hotel about 2.30.

After unpacking and settling in to our rooms, we met other carousel-riding poets, many of whom are poet-friends, and the four workshop-leading poets, in the hall at 3.30. Our first workshop was at 4.00: no time wasted here! Andrew McMillan’s workshop was thought-provoking, about trying to see your poems through frosted glass so you don’t make everything explicit, leaving room for the reader to look for their own answers. I didn’t write a great deal to brag about, but I came away with new ways of looking; new ideas to try out. A three-course dinner, a shared bottle of wine—on top of lunch—and I was feeling quite sleepy. On Friday evening, Andrew McMillan and Greta Stoddart, two of my favourite poets, read from their various prize-winning collections. I was in bed soon after they’d finished. I hadn’t slept well on Thursday night—bloody shoulder—so I could feel the rhythms of the evening poetry readings lulling me to sleep. I didn’t fall asleep before I climbed into bed though, but it was a close run thing.

Saturday morning. The hot water at the hotel wasn’t working, so no showers, except in Kim’s chalet in the grounds. She offered us all the use of her shower, and I had visions of forty poets, all with sponge bags and towels in hand, queuing outside her front door for their turn. Presumably everyone else had a similar vision, because I don’t think anyone else took her up on it either. So, no showers; but we’re all in the same boat, all equally skanky, so it didn’t matter. The hot water was back on by the afternoon, so showers were on the agenda before the evening meal. After breakfast on Saturday we had the second ‘ride’ on the carousel. Sean O’Brien’s workshop asked us to consider those quiet moments when nothing much happens—Sunday afternoons, for instance; or the early hours—and imaging something from nothing happening. He handed out poems to illustrate his point: we read ‘Pointed Boots’ by Christopher Middleton, about the quietness of a railway station at 3.00 a.m.; and ‘The Apprehenders’ by Kit Wright, about a do-nothing Sunday afternoon with a crime novel. Sean gave us forty minutes to write a poem about our own quiet, do-nothing times, and the poem I’ll close with is about this. A lifetime ago I was a nurse, and I loved the low-keyness of night-duty, the strangeness of working when everyone else was sleeping. The community of night-duty workers took delight in adding fun to the necessary stress of nursing. My poem is about this; and about how I once scared myself witless by reading The Hound of the Baskervilles’in the pool of light from the lamp at my ward desk.

Saturday afternoon I came to my room and read Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Writing Motherhood: A Creative Anthology (Seren 2017), with prose pieces, poems and interviews with women writers who have fitted motherhood into their lives as writers. I’m loving it; and loving seeing poets I know included in the anthology; and loving that I am finding places where I can enrich my thesis with something from the book. Is there no end to a writing task? After our evening meal last night, Rishi Distidar came to read for us. He’s a young Indian-heritage poet, funny, overtly political, engaging. A Q&A session followed; a good evening all round.

So that’s where we’re up to so far. More lovely poetry today, so I’d better knock on. Here’s the poem I wrote for Sean O’Brien’s workshop yesterday morning. Be kind to it: it’s less than twenty-four hours old, and it’s due a feed!

 

Night Duty

Three in the morning and the air
is ripped by Mr Goodfellow’s flatulence, bed 3.
The anglepoise’s pool of light over the desk
slowly seeps to black. A rustle of paper
now the meds are done, the pupils checked,
the TPR lifesigns marked on charts.
Mr Bagley snores up a storm in bed 10,
from bed 1 Mr Chattergee is talking in his sleep,
pleading with his surgeon or his god—
it’s not for me to discriminate—
to send him home.
Now, here’s Fran, the knowall first year
collecting a dozen fallopian tubes
for Staff Nurse Goose, who she’s pissed off.
She comes every night on such a Goose chase:
a long weight, a pair of threeceps,
an emergency admission for Mr Hare
with myxomatosis.
I send her on her way to pathology
and the air settles into an approximation of sleep.
Somewhere within the anglepoise’s pool of light
Mr Holmes is startled by a howling dog.

Rachel Davies
December 2018

…a small pinprick of light

Completion of PhD is getting so close I can feel it; I can see it, a small pinprick of light at the end of a shortening tunnel. Six months left, and I’ll be using every one of them, but this week I took a significant step toward completion.

On Wednesday I met with Jean Sprackland, my creative support, to discuss the poetry collection. In the past I’ve sent sets of six or seven poems to her for feedback. This is the first time I’d sent her the complete body of work to read and comment on. We met in the Eighth Day café on Oxford Road and it was with some trepidation that I walked along Oxford Road in the rain, with the wind almost strong enough to blow me off my feet. We had tea and cake and talked poetry. I had three major questions:
Q1: is it a sufficient body of work to fulfil the requirements of PhD?
A: yes it is!
Q2: is my organisation of the collection appropriate?
A: yes it is!
The third question she answered without my asking: she enjoyed reading the poems, the mix of humour and pathos, the mix of forms, lengths, styles and emotions, the creative arc. She loved my crown of sonnets, a colloquial dialogue between a mother and her daughter, the first sonnet crown I’ve attempted. She had some small suggestions about four or five—out of eighty two—of the poems, mostly about sustaining metaphor, or strengthening verbs; one of the poems needs a bit of an overhaul. But apart from that, it’s almost ready to submit. Yay! A huge load off my mind; especially as I still have six months and several writing workshops booked before the deadline, so I can add to it if I write anything appropriate; and all the poems I write seem to be about motherhood at the moment, it’s a bender I’m on. I came away from that meeting full of joie de vivre—and chocolate and date cake—and went to meet up with Hilary in the MMU library.

We went to Principal on Oxford Road for bar snacks and coffee—actually I had a cider to celebrate—before going to the launch of Jean’s new collection, Green Noise (Jonathan Cape 2018) at No. 70, across the road. We met with lots of lovely poetry friends there, all alumni of the MMU Writing School, where Jean is Professor of Poetry. The event was introduced by Andrew McMillan, another poet-tutor at the Writing School. I heard Jean read some of this collection at her inaugural professorial lecture earlier in the year, I even asked her permission to use a line of  one of her poems—‘Crystallography’—as a quote in my thesis: ‘the strong life of the inert’, which she uses to describe the growing crystals, but which seemed just the phrase to describe the ‘things’ we remember people by, in my case, the tools my mother used in her day to day work as wife and mother. The reading on Wednesday was lovely, such a good collection, a minute look at nature, well read; followed by a Q&A session. I bought the book and Jean signed it ‘With love and admiration’: how good is that, to be admired by one of the country’s top poets? I was all poetried-out when we went home; and too poetried-up to sleep.

In other PhD news, I’ve been working on the thesis again; yes, I’m back into it, tackling it with renewed vigour after my meeting with Jean. I can see the finishing line, and I’m running hard to get there. On Sunday last, I printed off what I’ve written and redrafted already. I followed my Director of Study’s advice and began to read it through, taking notes of each paragraph to give me a framework for the introduction and conclusion. It was good to read it, a near-complete piece: I always find it more satisfying to read from paper than from the screen, I pick up on more issues. I found a major one: a couple of the pages near the end would fit much better within a section I’d written in the middle! So I did a cut and paste job; and then worried about saving it in case I didn’t like it where I’d put it. So I saved both versions: how many saved copies do you accrue before the final version is submitted? I have files within files, Mk 2, Mk 3, the final version, the final-final version, the post-October meeting with A&A version, the post-October experimental version—etc. I have to find ways of remembering which version I’m currently running with! But when I read through it again—from the screen this time—I liked the change, it made sense, it worked. By the end of the week I was putting together my introduction, about 1000 words telling the reader what the thesis covers. It seems like an easy job; but it comes with its own angst: I think it’s too long, I think it needs cutting down; but at least I know where I can lop some without spoiling the overall. Chip, chip, chip. I feel like Michaelangelo, who said he knew there was a perfect figure in that block of stone, his job was to keep chipping away until he found it. I keep chipping away until I find the perfect thesis hidden in all these words.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. This session was an anonymous workshop: poets submit poems to me, which I put into one document, standardise the font then send out to all the poets who submitted to read and prepare for discussion and feedback at the meeting. There were six poems this time, six members at the meeting. It was a good session. We couldn’t have our normal room, it was booked by the Stalybridge Clairvoyant Society—I didn’t see that coming, Boom Boom!—so we met in the conservatory instead. It was noisy at first, several groups sat drinking at tables; but eventually they left and we closed the door to inhibit all-comers and had the room to ourselves. Our meetings were at critical attendance levels about a year ago, so it was good to have six members, with two apologies. Our conservation work is taking effect: we’re off the red list!

Finally, life: it was the first session of physio for the damaged shoulder on Thursday this week. We were a few minutes late, because just as we were leaving the house, our car was blocked in by the dustbin lorry. Is the physiotherapist always that curt, or was it because we were late? Your bedside manner needs some work, lady! And did I just imagine her sadistic delight at causing me pain in the examination of the shoulder? But she gave me some simple exercises to do at home, and I’ll see her again in January. That is to say, the exercises seem simple, sliding my arms up a wall, or sliding them outwards from the waist at a table, elbows at right-angles. But my goodness, I can feel the effects the next day. No pain, no gain, I keep telling myself; and I keep popping the codeine, which brings its own problems, but I do like liquorice!

I’m going to include the first sonnet in my crown of sonnets this week, in celebration of my very positive meeting with Jean. I wrote this following a visit in 2016 to Manchester Art Gallery to see the ‘Strange and Familiar’ photographic exhibition. I was particularly struck by the grotesque photographs of Bruce Gilden, especially one of an elderly woman, her bloated face a ‘street map of veins’, her hair in rollers. You can see a reproduction of the photograph here: https://www.google.com/search?q=Bruce+Gilden+photographs&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjeqejMrfTeAhVC3qQKHQzBBuMQ_AUIDigB&biw=1191&bih=750#imgrc=_

If you click on the ‘images’ tab you will find her—eventually—about 25 rows down. You can’t miss her. I was struck by her because she was displayed next to a board of photos of young girls in the 1960s, all mini-skirts, Sassoon haircuts and self-confidence, and it occurred to me that she would have been one of those young girls once. That was the inspiration for my sonnet crown, a dialogue between her and a fictional daughter I gave her. The italicised line introduces the daughter’s contribution to the dialogue. All fiction, but fun to write. Here’s the first sonnet of the crown; as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting:

 

Mirror Images

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

you landed the role of grotesque.

 

 Rachel Davies
2017

Kicking Arse

‘Get your arse on that office chair and do some work!’ This was me talking myself into getting back to work yesterday. I started the week with the best intentions, but my body let me down. While we were away last weekend, Hilary had given me some of her codeine tablets: yes, I know, you shouldn’t share medication. But the pain in my arms was so bad at night that it was waking me up, and desperate times call for desperate measures. The codeine helped, so on Monday I made an emergency appointment with my GP to ask for codeine of my own. At last I got the results of the shoulder scan I had at the end of October. Bursitis, fluid and calcification in the space between the joint, and a small tear in the bicipital tendon. Did I just imagine the doctor taking a sadistic pleasure in asking me to move my arm in a way he knew would hurt,  to prove to himself the scan diagnosis? Anyway, he agreed that codeine was necessary and prescribed copious amounts. I have a physiotherapy appointment on Thursday this week, but he thinks it’s possible the physio won’t want to work with the shoulder because of the tear; in which case I’ve to go back to GP for cortisone injections into the joint. Right now, I’d let an elephant walk over it if it would stop hurting. On Tuesday I was all geared up to work, but the pain was so bad I felt ill with it; I snuggled under a blanket, watched escapist rubbish on the telly and let Bill cook tea. Yes, it really was that bad!

So, that has been the backdrop to everything I’ve done this week, throbbing upper arms, weak and painful hands and the inability to ask for the help I need, even with dressing myself. It actually makes me laugh that I have to put my vest on from the feet upwards because it gets stuck under my arms otherwise and there is nothing I can do about it. I feel like a beetle caught on its back and desperately trying to right itself against all the odds. But my independence is important to me; although I do give in and ask for help getting into my coat: my arms just won’t go behind my back. I took another day off on Wednesday when Amie and I went to Peterborough to meet up with a friend who’s struggling a bit at the moment. We met with Richard and went into the City centre for a meal. It was good to have nothing else to do but sit and be looked after and spend time with family and friends.

On Sunday, our last day in the South Lakes, Hilary and I had visited Rebecca, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, to collect some more copies of our lovely book, Some Mothers Do…On Thursday we met over lunch to discuss incomings and outgoings and to make sure all our readings are in the diary. We settled our accounts with each other too. Hilary has booked tickets for the Verve Festival in Birmingham in February and I booked the train tickets, so we needed to make sure neither of us was out of pocket. Actually, the cost was very similar: a return train fare for eighty miles or three wonderful days of poetry readings, workshops, talks. So which is the better value, do you think? Get yourselves to Verve: we know it’s good because we were there last year. Details here: http://vervepoetryfestival.com

After a full-on week, it was Saturday before I got down to work. I’d done some reading of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry to prepare for a short section I’m adding to the thesis, but reading one of your favourite poets hardly classifies as work, does it? I know students are supposed to prevaricate, but this week was prevarication on a monumental scale, and most of it out of my control; and when you’ve taken nearly three weeks out of work it takes some serious discipline to get back to it. It’s a daunting prospect. For one thing, my brain had forgotten what the work was that I needed to do: obviously I knew it was about redrafting and editing the thesis, but I was sure it was all beyond me and I wouldn’t know where to start. Work had become the elephant in the room: I knew it needed doing; and I knew I was the one to do it. But I felt afraid of it, as if it was a rogue elephant preparing to charge. It wasn’t. I bit the bullet and got my arse in that chair and picked up where I left off. By the end of the day I’d addressed all the advice from my Director of Studies and made notes in red of places I’d skipped over, needing more thought. I also prepared a paragraph or two on Carol Ann Duffy’s poems about the mother-daughter relationship. Mostly my work is about how daughter’s relate to their mothers, as addressed in the poetry of Pascale Petit, Selima Hill and me, daughters writing about their mothers. Carol Ann Duffy reminds us that mothers are also daughters, and daughters often become mothers: she writes from both perspectives so that’s an interesting take. All mothers have been daughters, after all. I chose her poems about the cold and snow as metaphors for being on the outside of that relationship. Her new collection, Sincerity (Picador 2018), has some wonderful examples. In my opinion it’s her best work since she became Laureate. She signed my copy during the interval of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester last week. If you haven’t got a copy yet, you’d better put it in your letter to Santa. You won’t be disappointed. There’s something in there for everyone: satire, humour, sadness, joy.

So, by the end of Saturday I was feeling very good about myself. I feel back on track; I’ve kicked that work into submission and I can see that the work I still have to do is doable: I’m looking forward to it. It’s all about writing an intro and a summative conclusion; and reflecting on how my reading of the three poets I discuss has influenced my own poetry. I’ve done this in several places, but I need to develop that reflection some more. So, I’ll have a good week at it this week and gradually mould it into shape. I’m confident that it’ll be ready to send back to the team in the New Year. Hilary has promised to read it before I send it off too, which will be really useful, to get a new set of eyes to assess it, to see if it makes sense to someone who’s not involved in it. Bless her heart.

On Wednesday this week I’m meeting Jean Sprackland to discuss the collection of poetry I’ve written for the creative element. It is the first time we’ve discussed it as a complete collection; normally I’ve sent a set of poems off to her for feedback, so I feel it’s a way-marker of how close I am to completion that we are discussing the full collection. We’re meeting in the Eighth Day Café on Oxford Road, so It’ll probably involve cake. In preparation for that meeting, I’m going to include a poem I wrote some time ago, early on in my PhD journey. It’s a poem that explores that feeling we all have, don’t we, as children growing up: that we’re out of step with the family. Like many children, I used to fantasise that I was adopted, that my real self was out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. Silly really: why would anyone with a large brood want to think about adopting another one? I reflected on that and wrote this as an exploration of why I felt at odds. I was really an alien, a Midwich Cuckoo finding my way in a strange world.

 

Cuckoo

She’s looking at me as if she hasn’t a clue who I am.

Her real daughter was stolen from the maternity ward.
I’m telling you, aliens lifted her from her crib, left me,
a mysterious doppelganger that she can’t know.

Remember that school photo, the one
where I’m sitting bolt upright, smiling at the camera
but my eyes are staring at the lens like lasers?

I tell people I’m her love child with Ming the Merciless.

 

Rachel Davies
2016

Poetry and the Watch List

This week has been poetry.
I slapped poetry between two slices of buttered bread,
washed that butty down with the wine of poetry.
I bathed in poetry, poetry was the sponge and the loofah
I washed my back with.
I dived into the stream of poetry,
swam with the tide of poetry
Poetry has been my sleeping, my dreaming
my waking up.
My road has been walked to the beat of poetry’s feet.

So as you can imagine, there hasn’t been much time for anything else; and in fact, my head has been so much in poetry’s space, it’s been in the wrong place for other stuff, including PhD work. I’ve heard the expression ‘I need to give my head a wobble’: this week I understood exactly what that meant. My head will be duly wobbled now that poetry has been cut down to manageable size.

Tuesday was the Saddleworth launch of Some Mothers Do…at Amie’s pub, the Black Ladd. I went for my fortnightly haircut in the morning, but the hairdresser’s wasn’t open when I arrived—first appointment—so I popped into the clothes shop next door for a browse while I waited. I accidentally bought a gorgeous, dark green velvet dress for the poetry event in the evening. It was wrapped and in my bag before I realised what was happening! It’s the hairdresser’s fault for not being open.

We went to the Black Ladd at about 5.00 p.m. Amie closed the restaurant to the public, although the bar remained open. We met up with Hilary and her husband and son; and Angi Holden and Angela Topping, who again read for their friend, Tonia Bevins, our dragon triplet. Richard drove up with our friend, Maria, from Peterborough after work, arrived about 5.30; gradually the audience started to arrive. We were unsure how many would make it: Saddleworth is on the rural edge of Oldham, public transport is non-existent after about 6.00 p.m. so a car is a must: the pub began to fill with friends, neighbours, stanza members. It was lovely that so many people came to help us celebrate the book. We started the poetry reading at 7.15,  had readings from the book in the first half, called an interval to refill glasses about 8.00.  Amie had said she would put on ‘some nibbles’; in the event she filled a table with lovely finger buffet stuff, quiches, samosas, bhajis, macaroons and all manner of ‘nibbles’. it was a lovely surprise. The second half was given over to an open-mic; three of my Stanza members signed up, and Angi and Angela took five minutes each to read their own work. Hilary and I finished off with a couple more poems each from the book. A lovely evening, as they say, was had by all. Thank you so much to Amie for hosting the evening, and to Mo and Jill who helped her; and to all the wonderful people who gave up their time to come. I expected to be so buzzed up I wouldn’t sleep after; but in fact, the excitement of two launches in one week along with wine mixing with residual co-codamol for the shoulder thing and I was out like a light soon after we got home, slept like a baby.

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Hilary and I reading at the Saddleworth Launch of Some Mothers Do… at the Black Ladd

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Bill being a very attentive member of the audience

Wednesday was spent preparing to come away on Thursday. I’m writing this from my bed in Silverdale in the South Lake District, where I’m staying with Hilary and Linda, another poet friend. Hilary and I travelled up together on Thursday for yet another poetry book launch, this time for the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie, launched at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve. It’s an anthology with poems by 70+ poets all inspired by birds on the Watch List of endangered species. Yes there are rare-ish birds on the list: the red backed shrike, the dottrel; but more worrying, there are everyday garden birds like sparrow, song thrush, starling. A recent report by the WWF points out that the world has lost 60% of its animal populations in the last forty years! That’s a staggering and shameful figure. Human activity, modern farming practices, habitat destruction, climate change all contribute to ensuring our wildlife is critically endangered. Watch the Birdie recognises the threat and has attempted to do a small thing to redress the balance. John F Kennedy said, ‘One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.’ This anthology is poetry’s way of trying to make a difference. The book launch was at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve and the book will be sold in the gift shops at several RSPB reserves in the North West, all profits going to support the preservation work of the RSPB. The launch was another lovely evening, a gathering of about fifty poets, old dragons and new, old friends and new; about thirty read their poems. Beautiful Dragons is the brain-child of Rebecca Bilkau, the editor, and it’s lovely that so many poets sign up to the various anthologies she dreams up. Friday’s launch had a real reunion feel: good poetry, wine, wonderful cheeses and cake, and a silly folk song about humans flying in a ‘flour sack cape’ from Rebecca’s husband, Michael: that’s what I call a brilliant night. On Saturday morning we went back to the reserve for a guided walk, which was lovely. We saw a bittern, which in the world of twitchers—bird watchers—is quite a coup apparently: they wait with binoculars raised for years to see one; we just turned up and there it was!  We saw squillions of different varieties of duck; we saw a large white egret; we saw a pair of cormorants fishing for food; we learned of the bearded tit, which isn’t a tit at all really, and which changes its diet in the autumn and winter from the abundance of insect life in the spring and summer to the seeds of the reed beds, but needs to eat grit to store in its crop to use as a mill to grind the seeds to a pulp so that they can be more easily digested. Evolution, eh! Survival of the most imaginative! After the walk around the reserve, Hilary, Linda and I all joined the RSPB, making a small contribution to the wonderful conservation work they do.

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The cover of the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie

I’m going to include my Birdie poem this week. I chose the fieldfare to write about, because I remember it from my growing up in the Cambridgeshire fens. It’s a member of the thrush family, a winter visitor from Scandinavia. It arrives, and lives, in large flocks, returning to Scandinavia in the spring to breed. In the fens its name is pronounced ‘felfer’, and research revealed it has several dialect names, both here and in its native Scandinavia. The poem is an acrostic, a form that takes the name of the bird and uses its letters as the first letter of the lines, so that the bird—in this case FIELDFARE—is spelt down the page. I tried to disguise the acrostic by allowing the lines to run on, limiting the end stops. I hope I’ve been successful. WordPress doesn’t like the formatting of poetry: alternate lines in this poem should be tabbed in once; I’ll leave you to work it out. 😦

 

Fieldfare

Feature of the fenland fields
in winter, you arrive
in large flocks, flying overhead
to your migrant shelters.
Egregious thrush-cousin of song, mistle,
blackbird: you never joined their choir.
Large and several, you bring a little of Scandinavia
to snow-covered hills and woodlands.
Daring aeronauts, take off, soar, show us
your red capes, grey rumps, black tails.
Felfer, fallowfarer—I see a nickname
as an expression of affection
and you are indeed well-loved—
felfit, felfire, feldifire.
Remember, though, where you found succour
in this theatre of ice and snow:
eat well, entertain us with your tuneless soliloquy
then exit stage right,  pursued by the spring.

Rachel Davies
November 2018
[Watch the Birdie;Beautiful Dragons Press 2018]

Dragon Sisters

This has been a good week. To coin one of Trump’s favourite hyperboles, this has been the best week in the history of weeks!

On Sunday I was working on my thesis. I have cut and pasted a lot, which is painful but necessary. I’ve put all the cuts into an out-takes file for future use if I need them. I put some into a rather long footnote about the historical male domination of poetry publication. I’m showing how difficult it was for women to be anything but domestic slaves. No wonder post-natal depression happened, when women could completely lose their personhood in wifedom and motherhood. Anyway, I’m chipping away at the thesis again, like a word sculptor, giving it the correct shape, honing it. And re-reading Carol Ann Duffy for the poems I’ll add into the mix. She writes so well on having/being a mother.

On Monday my daughter asked if I’d like to go to Peterborough on Tuesday to visit a friend who’s having a hard time at the moment. Of course I would, so that took one of my working days, but it was worth it. I made up the slacking by working Monday evening, sorting out my reading sets for Wednesday’s launch of Some Mothers Do…I settled on a mix of poems from the book and poems that fit the theme of the book. On Tuesday, I was awake at 3.00 a.m. I had a poem going through my head, a message to insert into the ‘thank you’ card for Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons Press. I lay in bed trying to form it into a cinquaine, a five-line syllabic form; that’s the kind of creative insomniac I am. Eventually, I sat up and wrote that poem down. By then it was too late to go back to sleep. I emailed it to Hilary Robinson for feedback, then I got up and got ready for Peterborough. Amie was collecting me just after mid-day, so I had the morning to practise my two reading sets for Wednesday. I had two ten-minute slots, so that’s about five poems in each half. I like to stick to timing as closely as I can, it’s the professional thing to do. Poets shouldn’t need to ask, ‘how much longer have I got?’ or ‘do I have time for another one?’ If you prepared properly, you should know the answers to those questions. So I practised the readings to a stop watch. The timings include any introductions you want to give for the poems, so I drafted a few notes to keep intros to a concise minimum. Both sets were just about ten minutes each. My voice was fading by the end, a sign of the nerves I always experience before readings. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy to stand up in front of a room full of people and read poetry, it isn’t. It’s painfully self-revealing and full of ‘what-ifs’: what if they don’t like this poem, what if they question why they came in the first place, what if they have tomatoes and cabbages hidden about their persons and they start throwing? But a poet friend, Clare Shaw once told me, if you don’t believe in your poems how can you expect the audience to believe in them? So that’s why I practise so conscientiously: I need to read them like they’re the best poems in the history of poems—sorry, it’s becoming a habit—while making eye contact with the audience to keep them engaged.

We got to Peterborough about 3.30 p.m. in time for our friend coming home from work. We sat in her house amongst boxes of belongings—she’s moving at the weekend—and ate Chinese take-away out of the containers because she only has one plate that isn’t packed, and we chatted a lot. I hope we helped to cheer her up a little. Relationship breakdown is a hard thing to survive; and I know from personal experience that it helps to have the love and support of friends. It was nearly midnight when we got home.

Wednesday was up there among the best days of my life. I was awake early again, couldn’t sleep for the excitement—like a child at Christmas. I made a little nest for the hatching dragon I found in Wales, a gift for Rebecca. I heard back from Hilary about my cinquaine: she liked it, so I wrote it into a thank-you note and put it into the dragon’s nest with the egg. I practised my reading sets again, edited the intros to make them even more concise. I took some pampering time getting ready for the launch, changed shoes about six times before making a decision, then went out to meet Hilary and her family. Hilary was carrying a big, flat bag she’d made to transport the cake she’d baked for the launch: photo later. We went to Bunderbust to eat, which was lovely because it was Diwali, so a lovely party atmosphere. After the meal we went to the Portico library for the launch. Oh my, what a lovely room, full of old books and knowledge, an awe-inspiring room. My friend Joan, an avid Manchester United fan, had chosen the launch over the match against Juventus—greater love hath no woman! My ex-Reception teacher, Shirley Johnson was there with her lovely husband, which was a wonderful surprise: so many friends and poets in the audience, and all there for we dragon triplets. I gave Rebecca my dragon egg gift, which she loved; and when she read my little poem there were tears in her eyes. The readings went well; Hilary and I opened the event with a joint reading of one of my poems, a ‘coupling’ which takes some factual lines on a subject and intersperses them with poetic responses. Hilary read the factual bits, I read the poetry bits. It was a good opening. I read my first set, followed by Hilary; then Angi Holden and Angela Topping read on behalf of our dragon triplet and their friend, Tonia Bevins who sadly died in the summer before she could see this project completed. Her friends did her proud.

We took a break to replenish glasses and finally eat the lovely cake Hilary had brought. After the interval we had a second round of readings; Hilary and I signed books then some of us retired to the pub downstairs for a celebratory drink. Such lovely people, poets; so supportive as a community. While we were in the pub, Mark Pajak, the poet who organises the Royal Exchange series of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends poetry events, asked me if I’d like to read at the January 14thevent, to promote the book. He can only accommodate one reader in the timeframe, and Hilary read there quite recently. Well, we thought that over for a full two seconds before agreeing. The only barrier was, we were booked to read in Halifax on the same night. Hilary got in touch with the organiser of that event to request a rethink and he’s agreed to find us an alternative date. So, CAD & Friends it is then. Bring it on. I’ll read some poems from all three dragon siblings at the event. Details of the excellent CAD & F series here: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/carol-ann-duffy-friends-2018

Here are a few photos of the launch at the Portico Library:

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Some Mothers Do…

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Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, and our Dragon Mother.

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Still life with Hilary and Cake.

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Me, looking much more serious than I felt on the night.

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Angi Holden (R) and Angela Topping reading on behalf of Tonia Bevins.

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Manchester United fan, Joan, missing the Juventus match to be at the launch.

On Saturday, Hilary came to my house and we worked out how to use the headphone mic and small blue-tooth amplifier Amie bought us for the Saddleworth launch on Tuesday: 7.00 p.m. 13thNovember at the Black Ladd on Buckstones Road—OL1 4ST if you feel like setting your satnavs and joining us for the evening. The bar will be open, there’ll be nibbles, and a roaring fire in the grate; so come along and help to make it a good night. We worked out how the mic works. We set up the amp on a shelf in the lounge and sent Bill downstairs to the garage with the mic and we heard him clear as a bell, even at that distance. Fantastic. Having sorted that out, we signed some books for people who have requested copies but couldn’t make the launch. We feel like real poets, with book signings and everything! We went for coffee and a bite at Albion Farm in Delph, which is getting ready for its Christmas Festival. Yup, the Christmas market is open in Manchester and Albion Farm is getting festive. Deck the halls…

Finally, here’s the poem I wrote for Rebecca. it’s a cinquaine: a syllabic five-line poem, 2, 4, 6, 8, 2 syllables respectively. Our book is the first in a planned series of DragonSpawn pamphlets for poets who have written for Beautiful Dragons anthologies but haven’t yet had a full publication of their own. It’s Rebecca’s way of giving new poets a leg-up in the publication race. This poem recognises our appreciation and awe at being the first-spawn of the Dragon Mother. I told Hilary that Rebecca had tears in her eyes when she read the poem and Hilary said, ‘why? It wasn’t that bad, was it?’ And that’s why I love my dragon sister so much.

DragonSpawn

Breathe, and
from that fluent
glittery stream draw steam,
fireball choir of hatchling firstspawn
dragons.

 

‘…fluent, glittery stream…’ of poetry, from Carol Ann Duffy’s
‘Invisible Ink’ (The BeesPicador 2011)

Rachel Davies
November 2018

On Sincerity and shameless self-promotion

When I was a teacher, that didn’t feel like work at all; as headteacher, more responsibility, more walking a treadmill but still disbelief that I was being paid to do something I loved. Now I’m retired, the best job I’ve ever had. But reading Carol Ann Duffy for my PhD work? Behave yourself, that’s not work at all! I spent Sunday morning going through all my CAD collections to find poems exploring her roles as mother and daughter. It’s a strand of the thesis: that mothers have also been daughters, can, like female Januses, see the relationship from both directions. I scoured the contents pages of all my CAD books, read and made note of any poem that seemed relevant. On Saturday I read her new collection, Sincerity (Picador 2018) her last as Poet Laureate, from cover to cover. Oh my what a collection, a fitting end to an unorthodox laureateship with a huge nod to her ‘fluent, glittery stream’ of poetry—from her poem ‘Invisible Ink’ (The Bees Picador 2011). The intertextual references to poets of the past are subtle—sometimes as subtle as a brick—but astounding. Spellcheck just offered ‘intersexual’ as an alternative to ‘intertextual’, which it doesn’t recognise; and given that Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas, Shakespeare, Auden, Plath, Elizabeth Bishop are just some of the poets she celebrates in her poem ‘Auden Comes Through At The Séance’, I suppose ‘intersexual’ serves just as well! So that was a good morning; but it definitely wasn’t work, I enjoyed it too much. I’ve been blessed in my life that my work has always been rewarding, hobby-like, not like work: mostly the PhD is hard graft; this week it wasn’t work at all.

On Sunday afternoon I was back at my desk, taking the red pen—or rather, the shocking pink marker—to the thesis, seeing how I could rearrange it to cut out some bulk and to eliminate repetition. 20,000 words seems like a lot when you start writing, but I left that particular way-marker behind some miles past and I need to find my way back to it. It was interesting to read it as a whole piece again; and to read some appreciative comments from my Director of Studies: a little positivity goes a long way. By the end of the day I was half way through, building a good idea of where I wanted to go with it. Some of the stuff I’ll cut is important to me so I’ll probably make very long footnotes, as footnotes are not included in the word count! I finished that job on Tuesday. At the moment a radical redraft seems like a mammoth task, so I’ve given it some thinking time, to bring it down to size.

On Tuesday evening it was our Poetry Society Stanza meeting at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Our numbers have reduced to critical levels in the recent past, so it was good to have five members attending on Tuesday with apologies from two more regulars. I think we are off the red list! This week we read and discussed the poems that won or were shortlisted for Forward poetry prizes recently. Details of winning/shortlisted poets can be found on the Forward website: http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org/forward-prizes-for-poetry/forward-prizes-for-poetry-2018/so I won’t list them again here, but we loved poems by Vahni Capildeo, Fiona Benson, Jorie Graham. Favourite poet of the night, though, was Liz Berry, whose poem ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ won the prize for best single poem. I cheated a bit and read a second poem, ‘Horse Heart’, from her pamphlet The Republic of Motherhood, which wasn’t included among the prizes but could well have been. It’s one of those poems that gives me gooseflesh every time I read it. Liz Berry is our headline reader at Poets&Players on 17thNovember, an event I’m sadly going to miss for other commitments; she’s running a workshop for us in the morning as well. A fellow stanza member is taking my copy of her pamphlet to get it signed. If you’re interested, and in the Manchester area, why not come along to the Whitworth: you won’t be disappointed; details here: https://poetsandplayers.co

We almost have our hands on our joint collection, Some Mothers Do…The launch is at the Portico Library on Wednesday this week, and Hilary and I have been undertaking some shameless self-promotion. Hilary managed to get us into the local newspaper, Saddleworth Independent; and we have been sending email invitations to all and sundry. I think we’ll have an audience befitting such a worthy venue; but there’s always room for more, even if we have to sit on each others’ knees, so come along if you can: Portico Library, Manchester; 6.30 p.m. on Wednesday 7thNovember. We will welcome you with open arms—and a complementary glass of wine—and Hilary is making a cake with an iced topping featuring the book’s cover. Janet Rogerson, the Chairperson at Poets&Players, has also circulated the event on our behalf under the P&P logo, which is very considerate of her, so hopefully some of our regular P&P audience will come along. I’m as excited as a child at Christmas!

In other news, I had an ultrasound scan on my left shoulder this week. I didn’t find out anything, have to wait for the results to be with my GP in about a week and discuss it with my own doctor. It was strange to take a stroll around my own shoulder joint and glimpse its inner workings, though. I heard the word ‘ossification’ more than once so I’m guessing the diagnosis will be ‘significant osteo-arthritis’. Hopefully the physiotherapy will restore a full range of movement. I had to move my arm to all sorts of positions it didn’t like going, so I bought Co-codamol at the Lloyd’s Pharmacy attached to the Integrated Care Centre on the way out. A question: why would a box with the warning not to take for more than three days for risk of addiction, then pack four day’s supply of Co-codamol in the box? Seems counter-productive to me. Anyway, I’ve been taking it for about two weeks now, so I think I’m probably doomed! I don’t feel addicted, but it definitely knocks the shoulder pain into some sort of bearable level, so I’ll keep taking it as long as necessary. I gave the shoulder some hot water bottle therapy when I got home and Bill cooked tea.

I went for a haircut on Tuesday. When I got back to the car, my key wouldn’t work! I tried a couple of times, then tried it in the lock: it didn’t fit the lock. Oh my, I was stranded: how would I get home if I couldn’t get in my car. I was about to ring Bill to come and get me, when I realised I was trying to break into the wrong car. This was a Honda, mine is a Vauxhall Mokka. I’d actually walked past my own car to get to this one. Thankfully it didn’t have an activated alarm, or I would have been one very embarrassed woman. I think I need a holiday!

A poem:  a sonnet to celebrate Halloween, which happened in the week. I didn’t know either of my grandmothers. I didn’t know I missed them until I became a grandmother myself; so I have invented them. This one is my favourite: a bit edgy, a bit feisty, knows how to deal with a dysfunctional family. I didn’t meet my grandmothers, but I hope at least one of them was a bit like this:

Grandma was a white one

…flew a turbo charged Fazerblazer:
heated seat and pillion, power assisted
bristles. Her coven wasn’t impressed though,
snubbed her at the crossroads,
black-balled her. Jealousy’s the new ducking stool,
she laughed, helping herself from the cauldron
without so much as a couplet.

She didn’t waste the old hubble-bubble, just
threw in a word or two, a wow phrase,
a strong verb, the merest pinch of adjective.
She spelled each stanza as if it was her last.
Fly where you’re not wanted, that’s
what she taught me. Land in your own mess
of family. Spell and respell them.

Rachel Davies
October 2016

Of Friesian cows and pilchards

Yesterday we had a cow in our back garden; a lovely, healthy young Friesian cow, chewing on our border plants. Well, you don’t see that everyday. The joys of living in the countryside, eh? Bill asked around the neighbours and we found the cow’s owner and the story ended well. It’s been that kind of week: different, but on the whole, ending well.

I got the results of the shoulder x-ray this week: wear and tear in the joint—no surprise there then—and some signs of ‘shoulder impingement’, which if I understand it correctly, means the rotator cuff tendon is being trapped by the bones, restricting movement and causing pain in shoulders, arms and hands. My GP is sending me for an ultrasound scan this week to determine if there’s damage to the soft tissue of the shoulder before I present for physiotherapy at the end of November. Meanwhile, I keep taking the co-codamol, which helps. I suppose a hundred years ago it would have been diagnosed as ‘rheumatism’ and put down to ageing; that is if I could have afforded to consult a doctor a hundred years ago. Our NHS is wonderful. We should be fighting to protect it.

Our lovely poetry collection, Some Mothers Do…, has gone to print; yes, it’s being printed as I write. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! The author interview by Hilary and me was posted on the Ink Pantry website this week. It includes a touching tribute to the late Tonia Bevins, our Dragon Spawn triplet, by her friends Angi Holden and Angela Topping, who have been acting on her behalf in the editing process and will be reading her work at the launches. You can read the Ink Pantry piece here: http://www.inkpantry.com/inky-interview-exclusive-hilary-robinson-rachel-davies-a-loving-tribute-to-tonia-bevins/ Hilary also sent details of the Black Ladd launch of Some Mothers Do…to the local magazine, Saddleworth Life, and that’s available on their website. You can see it, with details of both launch events, here: http://www.saddleworthlife.com/exciting-times-for-newly-published-poets/ The Saddleworth Life article has already brought an invitation for us to be included in the Saddleworth Literature Festival on April 6thand 7thnext year; however we’re travelling to St. Ives on April 7thfor Kim Moore’s wonderful poetry week—with Amanda Dalton—at Treloyan Manor, so we don’t know if we’ll be available to fit in with the organisers plans. Details of Kim’s course are here: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/st-ives-residential-poetry-course/ A second invitation, to read for a local community group, Love Lydgate, will be easier to negotiate for suitable dates. I love my poet’s life, and it’s getting more exciting by the day!

But this blog is about ‘Poetry, PhD and Life’, so what of the ‘PhD’ bit? Well, I had my team meeting this week, on Wednesday. I dragged my aching body along Oxford Road to All Saints campus to discuss my latest draft of the thesis. It was such a positive meeting, I came away with a spring in my step, skipped my aching body all the way to a Costa close to the tram stop at St. Peter’s Square and treated myself to a bite to eat and a cappuccino. I still have a deal of work to do on the thesis, but feedback was positive and I feel, if not exactly on the home straight, at least as if I’m coming round the final bend. Antony was talking of early submission; I’m not convinced that’s on the cards. However, I do have another annotated version to work on, which, having read it, seems doable: I need to develop the introduction and conclusion, which I knew already; and they’ve suggested I develop a short input I’ve made about Carol Ann Duffy’s poems concerning mother/daughterhood. This won’t be a hardship: our Poet Laureate has been a poetry hero of mine since I discovered her work when I was doing an OU degree at the turn of this century. She was one of the reasons I chose MMU for my MA: imagine having a personal hero as a poetry tutor! I was already way over the 20,000 word count; so I’ve been advised to cut some bulk that strays away from the mother/daughter theme, and really focus the writing.

Yesterday was my first chance to sit down and work on it. I’ve cut huge passages, which I’ve saved in an ‘out-takes’ file: I never bin anything. I may use parts of it to emphasise/illustrate points. I’ve printed a copy so that I can give it the red-pen treatment to show where I need to pinpoint the mother/daughter focus. I’ve organised a plan of action for analysing Carol Ann Duffy’s poems relating to the mother/daughter theme; and I’ve sorted out all the relevant books I need. I spent ten or fifteen minutes searching my shelves for Duffy’s Selected Poems yesterday and couldn’t find it. I thought perhaps I’d been mistaken and hadn’t bought a copy at all. But when I looked at the pile beside my bed last night, there it was in the middle of the pile! It must have been in my hand all the time I was searching! Seriously, I need to take a holiday!

On Wednesday evening we went to Manchester Cathedral: Hilary, me and our partners. We had an early meal in Salvi’s on Exchange Square—their Gorgonzola cheese is the best in the whole wide world!—then took our seats in the Cathedral for a wonderful performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Antic Disposition are touring it around several Cathedrals, details here: https://www.anticdisposition.co.uk/henry-v-2018.html If it’s coming to a Cathedral near you, I recommend it. The performances are a commemoration of the centenary of the end of WW1. Henry V is performed as a ‘play within a play’: it’s set in a field hospital behind the Western Front, where the recovering inmates are putting on the play to entertain themselves. There are subtle places in the play where the Western Front insinuates itself into the play. It is a beautiful concept, very well performed. What a lovely evening. If you have chance to see it, don’t miss it. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

Lastly, I need to tell you that my son Michael rang me for a chat in the week; and on Friday I met my friend Joan for our monthly catch-up over dinner. I’m telling you this only because they both value a mention!

I’m giving you a poem this week that’s included in Some Mothers Do…I wrote it on Kim Moore’s poetry residential in St. Ives in 2014. While I was there, my daughter was undergoing surgery for the removal of the melanoma on her right shin. It was a worrying time, as you can surmise from this poem. The weather was lovely the week of the course, unseasonably warm for the time of year. On the Thursday, a couple of days before Halloween, Kim sent course members out—on the only wet day of the week—to find a poem in the town—‘and don’t come back till you’ve found one’. This is the poem I ‘found’. I’ve always loved it, because I love St. Ives; and because I know the story behind the poem. I’m glad it’s going to find its space in the book.

 

To St Ives a Love Poem
Halloween 2014

 Even though November is a black dog sitting at your feet
and your beaches lay crushed under the weight of mist

and your shoreline roars at the passing of summer
and your white horses rise on their hind legs

till your fishing boats get seasick; even though your trees
shed tears like baubles and your shops drip gifts like rain

and your cobbled streets and narrow alleys wind
around me like a clock and your posters announce

Fair Wednesday as if all other days are cheats
and your bistros display fish with eyes wide as heaven

scared as hell, and your railway bridge yells
do what makes you happy and it feels like a tall order;

even though your choughs are impatient for pilchard
your huers won’t see today from the Baulking House

still you open your arms and kiss my cheeks in welcome.

Rachel Davies
October 2014

Render unto Caesar…

PhD requires a huge commitment in terms of time, work, self-denial; holidays are forfeited to PhD work, down-time is a thing of the past; PhD is a cruel taskmaster that will have its pound of flesh—along with surrounding blood, bone and soft tissue. It is relentless. It is hard. So it’s only when you have a few days respite from it that you realise just how demanding it is.

I sent my thesis off to my study support team a couple of weeks ago—I meet with them to discuss it on Wednesday of this week. I have worked on some of the poems in that time, but on the whole I’ve left it alone, I’ve been in recession from PhD. I’ve managed to sort out my study: it’s ready to face the next round of relentless work after Wednesday’s meeting. I’ve shredded a small copse of trees, returned poetry and academic books to some kind of order on the shelves; I have a desk I can see the surface of for the first time in months. I’ve been out for lunch with my partner, Bill, without feeling too guilty about the time I’m not working; I’ve met Hilary for coffee—about which, more later; I’ve taken a couple of days to spend with friends and family; in short, I’ve had a foretaste of what my life will become when the PhD is done and submitted and I get my life back. But, render unto Caesar…after Wednesday the PhD shall have me back with a vengeance.

There is a lot of book launch preparation going on at the moment. The launch of the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie…will take place at Leighton Moss RSPB bird reserve on Friday November 16th, 7.00 p.m. Come along if you can: there’ll be some good poetry reading. Hilary and I are sharing a cottage for the weekend with a poet friend and fellow Stanza member, Linda Goulden. We all have poems in the anthology. We’re taking the cottage from Thursday to Sunday to give us time for some writing while we’re there. Yes, I’ll be taking PhD work and giving it a couple of hours before breakfast as is my wont on holidays. It won’t be ignored. Then the launch of the first DragonSpawn pamphlet, with poems by Hilary Robinson, the late Tonia Bevins and myself, is happening on November 7th, 6.30 p.m. at the Portico Library in Manchester with a subsidiary launch in Saddleworth at the Black Ladd, Amie’s pub/restaurant, on November 13th, 7.00 p.m. We’ve adapted the flyer for the Portico to produce a flyer for the Black Ladd event: later today I’ll be printing off several copies and distributing them around my local area. We’re having an open mic for other local poets at the Black Ladd event, so if you live in the area and fancy either event, do come along.

On Tuesday I met up with Hilary to discuss a poets’ interview we have been asked to give. Hilary met Deborah Edgeley, editor at Ink Pantry Publishing, when she went to the Nantwich Words and Music Festival in September. Deborah asked if she could do an author interview with Hilary and me concerning our shared pamphlet. We met on Wednesday this week to discuss our response to the questions, some of which invited a joint response, some of which needed individual responses from us. We put together our joint responses over coffee and nibbles, then wrote our individual responses—about our own contributions to the pamphlet—and finished the ‘interview’ by email in the afternoon. The interview will be published on the Ink Pantry website: http://www.inkpantry.com

I came across an advert for an Antic Disposition’s production of Henry V: https://www.anticdisposition.co.uk It’s touring the country in commemoration of the ending of the first world war, visiting several Cathedrals around the country during the tour. I have booked to see it at Manchester Cathedral on Wednesday of the coming week; we’re going with Hilary and her husband, David. It sounds like an interesting production, about which more next week. Wednesday is my last day of recession from PhD: I’ll be back to work with a vengeance after Thursday, so this is a little pool of respite before taskmaster returns.

Enough. Here’s a poem, very much in first draft. I wrote it at Sean O’Brien’s Poets&Players workshop a couple of week’s ago so it’s still a bit raw. It is ‘a novel in thirty lines or less’, the theme of the workshop. It was inspired by the painting ‘A Game of Patience’ by the artist Meredith Frampton: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-game-of-patience-78276 and by the Demeter and Persephone myth. It needs some more work to earn its place in the PhD portfolio, but here it is in its raw first draft:

The Patience of Persephone

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

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

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

Rachel Davies
October 2018

Boondoggling

Yesterday I learned a new word. It’s a word that sits well on the tongue, tastes good. I learned the word from my son, Richard, who is an historian. I said I’d been in Manchester on Friday and saw a bloke sweeping up leaves outside a pub, a Sisyphean task in the high winds we were having in the wake of Storm Callum. ‘Boondoggling’, he said. He explained it, but I couldn’t remember the word five minutes later because it was unfamiliar. I kept thinking ‘cornswaggling’, another tasty word. I’d never heard of boondoggling. He texted the word to me and I googled it when I got home. It was first used by the boy scouts in the 1930s, apparently, to name plaited leather strips that were awarded as uniform decoration: a special kind of scout badge. Later it was coined to describe projects that were set up to employ the jobless during the Great Depression in America, jobs like making these Boy Scout boondoggles. It gained more general usage to describe any job that was deemed unnecessary, but kept the unemployed poor off the streets, e.g. greeting people off trains at the railway station; or sweeping up leaves in high winds. To boondoggle is to ‘spend money or time on unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent projects…While cost overruns are a common factor in declaring a project a boondoggle, that does not necessarily mean the project has no benefit. Overruns are common, even with successful projects…’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boondoggle
I’ve been thinking about my PhD. It has costs, both monetary and personal; quite high costs that will never be recouped in any related employment. It has over-run in the sense that I have undertaken part-time study in this last year to allow me more time to complete. It could be ‘fraudulent’: I have certainly suffered imposter syndrome most of the time I’ve been doing it. But it may yet be a ‘successful project’. Is my PhD a boondoggle then? I hope so, I like it even more now!

I haven’t been boondoggling this week though: the PhD is on the back burner until I’ve met with my team on Wednesday, the 24th. I’ve taken the opportunity to tidy my study now that the first redraft is complete and sent. It needed doing. Books piled on the desk, piled on the floor beside the desk; print-outs needing shredding—I filled a black bag and have some more to do today; and small stuff my feline P.A., Rosie Parker, persistently knocks onto the floor needed picking up and putting back where it belongs. I’ve seen a FaceBook meme that says ‘If the earth really were flat, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.’ That’s Rosie Parker, a flat earth adherent. We call her Eartha Kitty at times like that—you have to be a certain age to get the reference, perhaps. So, my study is recognizable as a workspace again, all ready for the next round of redrafting and editing. I’m running out of bookshelf space. I have my poetry books all alphabetically stored: signed copies on the top two shelves, unsigned ones, still alphabetically arranged, on the shelves below. I now have poetry books piled on the shelves in front of this system, waiting for room to be ‘systemised’. When I finish the PhD I can do something with my academic books—store them in the loft, sell them off, give them away; have a bonfire—to free up my other bookcase, and the poetry books can overspill into two bookcases. I’m drowning in poetry.

The week has involved preparation for our book launch on November 7th, 6.30 p.m. at the Portico Library in Manchester. I have tried several times to reproduce the book cover into my blog, but WordPress isn’t having any of it. However, Hilary has set up an event on FaceBook so if you’re a Facebooker you can click this link to see the flyer for yourselves: https://www.facebook.com/events/1742866915825614/
We also have a Saddleworth mini-launch on November 13th. It’s a Tuesday evening, and Amie has arranged to close the Black Ladd for the evening for our use. The restaurant will be closed after last orders at 5.00 p.m. on that day and we will host a reading from 7.00 onwards. The bar will be open and there will be snacks; so if you live in the area, or know anyone who does, or feel like a Saddleworth visit, spread the word. We want to fill the bar area with poetry lovers, and there are lots in the surrounding area. I’ll design a flyer for the event—in Word—that I will be able to copy into next week’s blog.

After Saturday’s Poets&Players event at the Whitworth I took the opportunity this week of a lull in the PhD work to update my evaluation spreadsheet. I spent a day and a half bringing it up to date and copying comments into my files. We have loads of wonderful and positive feedback which is great, but doesn’t show the way to development; so we ask as well for ways in which our events could be improved. Comments about sound reproduction, the mix of poets, sight-lines etc. are helpful in improving the experience. One respondent had asked for a tram-link to connect Piccadilly Station to the Whitworth so s/he could come more often. I hope it was tongue in cheek—we’re influential, but not that influential! I sent my evaluation analyses off to Janet Rogerson, our Chairperson, who is already preparing the Arts Council bid for next year’s funding.

Two highlights this week: yesterday Richard and two friends came to visit and we went out for lunch with Amie, Angus and the Cockerpoos. We walked into Uppermill along the canal: thankfully it had stopped raining by the afternoon. The stepping stones were a no-no though. They’ve been standing proud of the river all through this gorgeous summer we’ve had but yesterday, after Storm Callum, the river was a torrent and the stones were under water. We had a lovely meal in Muse then walked to Grandpa Green’s in Diggle for coffee. We arrived just as they were closing so we went to Amie’s for coffee instead. It’s always good to spend time with family; and yesterday I learned my new word.

The second highlight? Tesco are selling large tubes of orange Smarties for £1.00 a tube. Orange ones are my favourites, I can pick them out of a mixed pack with my eyes closed. So I treated myself to two packs—ashamed to say I’ve eaten them both, although I did give Bill a small handful. I’ll have to stockpile some for Christmas if they’re still there next shopping day. Well, I could be addicted to much worse substances.

A poem. It’s not a ‘mother’ poem: I do write other kinds! I sent two poems to the Stanza ‘Traditions’ competition. This is one I wrote some years ago and it involves cricket between England and Australia. That’s quite a tradition. We were in Sydney Cricket Ground when Glenn McGrath bowled his last ball for Australia. The atmosphere was electric, the noise unbelievable. And, icing on his cake, he took a wicket. I know, cos I was there!

Stumps
(McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia: SCG 02.02.07)

In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:

the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?

Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?
A deafening noise, a roar of Thor

covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.

Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise

but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.

Rachel Davies
2007 (or later 😉