PhD, poetry and playing hooky

This week I have finished my sonnet corona for the creative element of the PhD, worked on the critical element of the PhD, been to two and a half poetry events, met up with lots of poetry friends and acquired a new-to-me car. Even by my standards it’s been a full-on week. I feel sorry for people who say they’re bored now they’re retired. Look at your options: boredom isn’t one of them.

On Sunday I got started late on my work. I made a huge plateful of pancakes with berries for breakfast and took my time eating them while I watched Andrew Marr so by the time I started, my head wasn’t in the right place for the critical element. Instead I prepped my work timetable for the week and then concentrated on the creative element. I wrote the fifth sonnet for the corona, in the daughter’s voice. Later in the day I had added the sixth, this one in the mother’s voice. I still wasn’t entirely happy with the two distinct voices, but I can work on that when I get the first drafts done. I left the sixth one on a good line for rounding back to the first line of the first sonnet to complete the crown. I’m reticent to tell you I abandoned work in the afternoon to watch Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-0 at OT, because it shows you the limits of my commitment to work. It was a fantastic match. In the evening I booked a hotel in York for next Wednesday. My daughter, Amie, had bought tickets for Danny Baker’s ‘From Cradle to Stage’ but her partner couldn’t make it so she asked if we’d like to go instead. I booked us a studio apartment in the centre of York for £80.00 for the night: I call that a bargain.

Monday was a big and dedicated PhD day. I worked on the Selima Hill chapter, putting all my disparate redrafted bits together in a whole. It’s taking shape. At 4.00p.m. I met up with Hilary to go to Amy McCauley’s writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street. This turned out to be the ‘half’ a poetry event I mentioned in my opener. We decided to get off the tram at Exchange Square and eat in a small, family run Italian ristorante there. Unfortunately, we lost track of the time, and when we picked the track up again, it was ten past six and the workshop had started at six; so we decided to workshop our own poems, take a leisurely coffee then go home. So sorry, Amy, we played hooky from your workshop: another first because, much as I hated school, I never once skived off then. When I got home, I booked train tickets to York: I found out there is no parking at the hotel I booked. York is very aware of its environmental responsibilities and discourages traffic in the city centre with excellent park-and-ride facilities. So we are going by train and taking the walk from the station when we get there.

Tuesday I was at my desk by 8.15 for another good day at the Hill chapter. I have a problem with the theoretical input even now. If I put too much theory into my argument, it feels like digression from what I’m really wanting to say; too little and the writing feels undernourished. Do I put explanations in footnotes or in the body of the work? Oh, this academese has always been a foreign language to me. I’ll decide at the next redraft, when I have it all put together in a finished draft of the whole chapter, I think. I’ll have spoken to Antony and Angelica again by then, so I’ll talk to them about it. After three hours of work on the Hill chapter, I changed tack and wrote the seventh and concluding sonnet for the corona. I printed off the whole thing and read it aloud, always a good way to listen to any inconsistencies in the rhythm etc. I was quite pleased with it as a first draft. It still needs some work on the distinct voices of mother and daughter, perhaps some idiom to distinguish them, but I’m pleased overall. It’ll be interesting to see what Jean Sprackland thinks of it when I send it to her next month. I’ve got time to do a bit more redrafting before then though.

Thursday it was the Manchester launch of the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology at
No. 70 Oxford Road. Hilary had organised the venue, in one of the lecture theatres there: it was intimate and comfortable. There were about fifteen of us ‘dragons’ there: other launches are taking place around the UK. But it was lovely to meet up with poet friends and share in the community of poets again for a celebration of some wonderful work. The anthology is called The Bees’ Breakfast. It has a poem celebrating every county, and a few cities, in the UK. I chose my native Cambridgeshire as my inspiration and wrote a short poem about the fens, centred around the man who became my stepfather and who was fenland through and through. I’ll post it at the end of the blog. You can find Beautiful Dragons publications here:

Please check it out and support them if you can: Rebecca Bilkau is the editor and works unbelievably hard on these collaborations. Some fantastic poets are involved as well, so you’ll get real value for money if you decide to buy. After the launch we all spilled out into the Thirsty Scholar for a celebratory drink. The community of poets served me yet again: Anna Percy and Rebecca Bilkau talked to me about my PhD work; they were really supportive and I thank them for it: we all need some support to keep us going. Rachel Mann also offered to read my sonnet crown, bless her. I love my poetry friends.

Friday was the pick-up day for my new car. I’ve been running on adrenalin all week thinking about it: not just about having it, but actually buying it. In all my half a century of adulthood (?) I’ve only bought four cars on my own and I find it extremely stressful: the knowing if I’ve done the right thing, if I really need a new car, if I’ll need the money for something else as soon as I’ve spent it, if, if, if…But at 2.00 p.m I went to the Pentagon dealership and took possession and oooh! it’s loverly! Here is a photo of the red, glittery bits that show in the paintwork when the sun shines on them: I know, a really blonde reason to buy a car, but just look at them and tell me you wouldn’t have been beguiled too:


This all brings us round to yesterday, Saturday. I had a wonderful day of poetry. It started with a workshop at the Whitworth Gallery on Oxford Road organised by Poets&Players. Steve Ely ran the workshop: it was based around the poetry of Emily Dickinson. We read, discussed and wrote poetry. I have a couple of embryonic poems from the workshop which I’ll be working on at home. Steve’s workshop was well organised, interesting and enjoyable. After a communal lunch with the committee and the competition winners, it was our competition celebration event. Oh my, what fantastic poems Michael Symmons Roberts had chosen as winners: Sharon Black in first place with ‘Post Op’; Ian McEwan in second with ‘Poem with this cow in it’; and Pam Thompson in third with ‘My life as a bat’. It was fantastic that all the prize winners could attend, especially as they came from the south of France, Bedford and Leicester; and they all read wonderful extra poems to go with their winning work too. I had the great pleasure of introducing Michael Symmons Roberts to our audience; and Li Liu, dressed in her wonderful costume creations to enhance the music, provided the ‘player’ element with her cello and Bach Cello pieces. It was a fantastic afternoon in wonderful surroundings of the south gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park, on a lovely summery day:


A lovely day and a wonderful week. I love my life. Here’s my poem from the Beautiful Dragons anthology The Bees’ Breakfast. 



Sometimes dreams can be nightmares.

He wanted most of himself to be buried, to become
an enrichment of the fenland soil he loved so much,
his heart and lungs to be thrown in Whittlesey Wash
to feed the eels he knitted his nets for.

Oh, he was generous. He gave me some peonies once,
dug up from his garden. He shook the soil off though—
that soil’s worth three thousand pounds an acre he said.
I looked for the smile but there wasn’t one.

One night his skeleton grew out of the earth like a myth.


Rachel Davies

April 2017



Golden Shovels and the community of poets

I’m a bit late with the blog this week. It’s been a bad week for sleep but even by my standards, the early hours of Saturday were just weird. At 1.30 a.m. we were woken by a woman outside our bedroom window, wailing into her phone. ‘But I love you so so much, I just want you back. My family says I should tell you to f*** off, but I just want you, please, come back…‘ etc etc. I have no idea who she was: we live on a fairly quiet country lane and you would only want to be out there if you were meaning to be there. After a five-minute wail, her heels clicked off down the lane and she was gone. My initial response was anger at being woken up. I wanted to shout down to her to stop being so needy and kick him into touch; but when she’d left I kept wondering who she was, why she was there and if she got home alright. And then I was angry all over again that she’d put that concern on me. In the history of insomnia, that is a pretty unique wake-up, I think; but it might be the subject of a poem some day.

So, the week in brief. PhD, poetry and life have all made their demands this week. Timetabling is working well for me. I have spent a lot of time putting the Hill chapter back together in order to send off to Angelica and Antony later in the month. Angelica has been putting lovely pictures of her working week in Mainz in Germany this week so I don’t think she needs it just yet: a good thing; it still needs some work. I’ll be back at it later today. I have been working on my sonnet corona this week as well: I promised Jean she would have a sight of it before the end of May, so still a month to work on that. Four of the seven sonnets complete and fairly polished. It’s hard to get two distinct voices into a dialogue; but vital to get that right.

Poetry has had a big space in the week, it being National Poetry Month. I’ve continued to write a poem a day: some of them have been rubbish, but there are some little gems in there too, worth keeping to work on in more leisurely times. One or two have been mother-daughter themed poems, which might be incorporated into the portfolio when I put the PhD work together next year. The real joy of NaPoWriMo is that, under its pressure, I am managing to write a poem every day. I always thought I could only write in my study–my ‘room of one’s own‘. But I have learned that I can even write poems while I’m watching telly in the evening; or when I stop work for a cuppa. They fit themselves into my spare moments, I don’t have to make huge spaces and times for them. True, they are not all worthy, but they are ‘poems’ and I am managing at least one a day.  Will I keep up this pressure after May 1st? Who knows; but I might.

I joined Carrie Etter’s NaPoWriMo FaceBook page at the end of March. She posted thirty prompts for poets to use if they needed a kick start with their poems. I have used some of the prompts; they’re good starters. But through that page, I have learned new forms I didn’t know about and that has helped me to write poems when ideas were lacking. I think I wrote about the pantoum last week: a form I vaguely knew about but hadn’t used before. This week I learned about a nonet and a Golden Shovel. Yes, really. Had you heard of them? I hadn’t; but I have now, and I have them in my NaPoWriMo repertoire. I wrote a nonet about a birthday gift my dad asked me to wrap up for my mum when I was a teenager. The nonet is a nine-lined poem (no surprise there then); but the first line must have nine syllables, the second eight and so on down to one syllable for the last line. I quite like the poem: I might post it at the end of this blog. But its shape offends my OCD: it all comes down to the point of that final syllable and it looks unstable, top heavy. So now I’m thinking I could write a reverse nonet, that stands on its nine syllable last line; or a specular nonet, that writes down to one syllable and back up to nine, like a mirror. See? There’s no end to poetry once it gets into your system.

Oh, and the Golden Shovel, you ask. No I’d never heard of one of them either. Now I’ve written two. You take a line of poetry you really like and use the words of the line as the last word of each line of your own poem; so if the line you start with has six or ten words in you write a six or a ten line poem. I took that wonderful line from Plath’s ‘Morning Song’: ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch‘ so my own poem became a nine-liner about watching my mother make a Victoria sponge. Your own poem doesn’t have to be along the same content as the original; your poem can be about something completely other. I guess the words in the line you choose might influence the content of your poem to some extent, but not necessarily so. Form can be very liberating when you are stuck for a beginning. Yesterday morning on Breakfast I saw a report about an elephant hospital in Thailand: they make prosthetic limbs for elephants traumatised by land mines. How sad is it that that should even be a thing? I thought of humankind having dominion over the animals and this seemed the worst possible example of how we abuse that trust. I tried to write that poem, but it wasn’t until I was in bed last night, approaching midnight, that I found a line by Pascale Petit that gave me my ‘in’: ‘that tight smile as if you’re tunnelling into the sun’ and the Golden Shovel gave me my poem. It needs some work, but it’s there in the shadows. The Golden Shovel is another example of the community of poets; or of what Carol Ann Duffy describes as poets all dipping into the same ancient stream. I love poetry; did you know?

Life has had its fair share of me this week too. On Tuesday I went to look at cars. I have had my eye on a Vauxhall Mokka for some time, decided I would buy one as a birthday present to myself later in the year. I asked Bill to come with me to the dealership just to look, just to work out my options. Yup, I bought one. Yup it’s brown–I can hear you shouting You bought a brown car? What were you thinking? I would have been shouting that before I saw the macadamia brown of the Mokka: I thought it was black when I saw it on the forecourt, until the sunshine showed the red glitter in its paintwork and I was hooked. My new-to-me Mokka 4×4 is brown and I’ll be collecting it before the weekend, hopefully. Lovely number plate too: VO16UUZ. Can’t wait.

On Wednesday I went to a meeting of the PMR-GCA north west branch. This is a support group for sufferers of Polymyalgia Rheumatica and Giant Cell Arteritis, the auto-immune conditions that I have dubbed the ‘ugly sisters.’ This was the first I heard of this group and I’ve been being treated since December 2013! I didn’t hold out much hope of it as a support group: I joined a FB support page at the beginning of my encounter with the ugly sisters and it seems to me it’s just a forum for proving you are suffering worse than anyone else; and I can’t be doing with that, being terminally optimistic. So I went to the meeting at the Victoria Hotel in Hollinwood expecting the worse and thinking I’d sit at the back and make good my escape if I couldn’t bear it. But actually it was quite helpful. A rheumatologist from Oldham Royal was there to answer questions from the floor and it was interesting overall. I’ll give it another chance to disappoint me in June!

Saturday my son Richard and his friend Ray came to visit. Amie, I and they went into Manchester for lunch at San Carlo in King St West. It was a lovely meal and I’m guessing I had a month’s supply of Slimming World syns in the dessert alone: a mile-high strawberry pavlova. I love spending time with my wonderful children; a shame Mike couldn’t be there: he had to work. He was missed.

So; if you have chocolate today, enjoy it. If you are a Christian, have a peaceful and life-affirming Easter. If, like me, you don’t subscribe to the religious meaning of Easter, have a lovely weekend anyway, and a perfect and productive week next week. Here’s my nonet ‘Painted Lady’. I discovered that by centre justifying it I’m happier with it standing so precariously on that one syllable. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to reduce the spacing on WordPress so it’s a bit longer and thinner than it is in Word, but here it is anyway:

Painted Lady

That face powder and blood-red lipstick

you gave her for her birthday said

more about you than it did

about her. Did you want

your Bull and Butcher

tart for a wife?

She was worth

so much



Rachel Davies

April 2017

NaPoWriMo and a little soul

I’ve had a wizard week when all aspects of poetry, PhD and life came together in a (near) perfect whole.

The timetabling idea is proving a bit of a boon. At the moment I’m only timetabling a week at a time; I may extend that when I get used to working to a fairly rigid plan. But a week is enough at the moment. So far it’s working for me. It does mean that I fit more work into a week than I would have done, because I fill the odd empty hour between other jobs with something productive. So this week I have been working on the revision of the Hill chapter, writing and editing my crown of sonnets and writing a poem a day for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). Eight poems written so far this week, some of them, very satisfyingly, to my mother-daughter theme: two birds, one stone.

Sunday it was my grandson’s 19th birthday. Amie and I went to Telford armed with birthday presents for him and for my great-grandson who was two the day before. We went out for a celebration meal: a table for nine. It was a lovely relaxing day of family and happiness. I still managed to write a small poem after I finished my Sunday blog, before I had breakfast. It’s not a particularly good poem, but it might be, one day. And it was a mother talking about a daughter, so it’s in my academic interest to make it good enough, isn’t it?

On Monday I wrote a pantoum. I think it’s the first one I’ve ever written. On Sunday night when I got back from Telford, I googled ‘pantoum’, downloaded an example, made my page double columned and wrote a practice pantoum beside the downloaded one. It was rubbish, but it was just testing out the form.  On Monday morning, in those lovely early hours when I’m the only person in the world who is awake, I wrote my pantoum proper. It is about watching my mother slicing runner beans just after my brother died. I am pleased with it, it is suggestive rather than explicit. It works, I think. Another poem for the portfolio, perhaps?

On Monday morning I visited the Integrated Care Centre in Oldham to visit the rheumatology nurse as part of my treatment for the Ugly Sisters: polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis. These are two horrible autoimmune diseases I developed in 2013 and 2015 respectively. They are linked; they are painful; they are treatable with cortico-steroids. Unfortunately the steroids cause all sorts of detrimental side issues for the body, like osteoporosis. Vitamin D and Calcium are essential; and a drug to help the body assimilate the Vit D into the bones. Osteopenia–a kind of osteoporosis light–is the reason I have broken two bones in the last couple of years, so I have to have that ‘assimilation’ drug injected twice a year. Monday morning was that day. In the afternoon I went to my aerobics class: it gets easier every time I go; then into Manchester to meet Hilary and Penny to plan our next Bitches Week in Anglesey in May. We had a meal together in Leaf on Portland St. then, after laying down our plans–which include a day trip to Dublin–we went on to Amy McCauley’s writing workshop. I took the leopard ‘revenge’ poem I wrote at Stanza last week. It was well received and I was given useful feedback on revisiting it.

Tuesday was all about rewriting sections of my Selima Hill chapter. The timetable is about planning short writing tasks: short, that is in content, but taking plenty of time to perfect. I rewrote two pages; I worked on the sonnet section as well. I have loved developing this section: only a couple of pages, but very satisfying. After a brew-break, I went back to work. I rewrote the third sonnet in my corona, in the daughter’s voice. I had made the daughter altogether too acquiescent in the first draft, and that wasn’t a daughter I wanted, so I made her more ambitious, less reliant on love, more reliant on her own mental resources. Not brilliant yet, a bit ‘lifeless’, but better. I kept the original two ‘daughter’ sonnets: they have some lines in that I don’t want to lose. So, altogether, Tuesday was a productive day. The daughter sonnet served as my fourth NaPoWriMo poem.

On Wednesday morning I wrote my fifth poem in bed before the world was awake. It is a poem that tells of the experience of appendicitis when I was a child, but told from a third person viewpoint. It’s amazing how much you remember of something when you write a poem about it! After breakfast, I took Rosie Parker for her dental check up. Worried about getting her into the cat carrier, we allowed plenty of time for the fight. But she was gentle as a lamb, went in with no fuss; so we were at the vet’s earlier than expected. Her teeth are fine following the dental treatment she had earlier in the year; so that’s good. No more cat carriers until her annual boosters in July. I went from the vet’s to the Black Ladd to work on the accounts for the morning. Bill came for lunch as usual, then after lunch we went into Manchester to the Palace Theatre to see The Commitments: Amie had enjoyed it so much when she went, she had bought us tickets as soon as she got home. Oh, my! It was wonderful: all the soul days of my youth compressed into two hours of fantastic entertainment. I’ve read the book–I love Roddy Doyle’s books; I’ve seen the film; the stage version was the icing on the cake.  We went for a meal in Don Giovanni’s after the performance. A lovely day altogether, thank you Amie. When I got home I researched my sixth NaPoWriMo poem, a ‘found’ poem based in the lyrics of some of the songs. I wrote it in bed early on Thursday morning. I’ll post this poem at the end of the blog: it was fun to write but I don’t think it is for publication anywhere else! In the evening on Wednesday, I received news of the winning entries in our Poets&Players competition from Michael Symmons Roberts. I can’t tell you, or I’d have to kill you; but you can come along to our celebration event at the Whitworth Art Gallery on April 22nd, details here:

Coming Events

Thursday I went to the Black Ladd again to finish off what I didn’t get done on Wednesday. All up to date again. In the afternoon I worked at polishing the sonnets in my sonnet crown. I’ve cut out a lot of the words from the third sonnet, the daughter one. And I’ve adapted her ‘voice’ to make it distinct from the mother’s voice, by taking out the rhymes at the end of lines. There are still rhymes but they’re embedded in the lines, less obtrusive. I’m much more pleased with it now.

On Friday, the usual chores in the morning. In the afternoon I went to a pilates class at my gym. I talked to the rheumatology nurse on Tuesday about exercise. When she measured me, I appeared to have shrunk about an inch since I damaged the fourth thoracic vertebra last July. This is because it was a compressed fracture: the bone was crushed in the fall. She thought the pilates was a good idea to improve posture: the injury has left me with a very slight stoop. So, on Thursday, pilates. T4 still objected when I lay on the floor but I told it to shut up and get on with it. There were some moves I definitely couldn’t do, like making a shoulder bridge and taking my legs over my head, feet all the way down to the floor. I didn’t want to go home with more compressed fractures, so Julie gave me alternative exercises at those times and I did the full hour. I have felt every muscle in my body ever since, so it must be doing me good. I’ll go again, but not next week. Julie is ‘old school’ (her words) she ‘doesn’t work bank holidays’. Easter next week. When I got home I wrote my daily poem. When we drove into Uppermill this morning the moors looked as if they had dressed themselves in flak jackets, those brown/green/khaki colours the moors have at this time of year. Trump had ordered the bombing sortie into Syria in the night and it seemed as if even Nature was at war. So that was the inspiration for my Friday poem

Saturday, more timetabled PhD work. I was at my desk by 8.00 a.m. and worked well all morning, about five hours altogether, putting all aspects of the Hill chapter together in a readable whole. I also wrote a fourth sonnet for the corona, in the mother’s voice, a response to the third sonnet, the daughter’s sonnet. After lunch, Hilary, Penny and Polly came with their partners to watch the Denshaw premiere of the Sky Arts programme we were involved with in the summer, about spotting the fake painting among the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery. I had recorded it on Sky+ so we could watch together. Yes, we were in the programme: only as supporting extras mostly, but Penny got a speaking part near the end.

So that’s it for another very busy week–are there any other kinds? Here’s the poem I drafted following The Commitments. Nostalgia is good for the soul; soul is good for nostalgia.

The Commitments

 all the best days of my youth


I bet you’re wondering how I knew

they call you Mr Pitiful?

I laughed when you left, but now

I’m added to your chain of fools

and I can’t stand the rain against my window,

it makes it easier to bear.

I’ll wait till the stars come out

because it gets bigger baby, and I try

and I try and I try and I try, I can’t get no—

all you wanna do is ride around Sally.

I wish I knew you before you met her—

get out my life why don’t you babe

be a do-right-all-night man—

bye bye baby, baby goodbye.


rolled into two and a half hours of soul

Rachel Davies

April 2017

Stanzas, sonnets and Spelks

It’s been a good week this week. My timetabling is proving a real asset: I seem to be getting loads done, both critical and creative work. I feel as if this PhD is becoming manageable.

Sunday was Mothers’ Day. I had a lovely relaxed day, had phone calls from all three of my children, was given tickets to see Ricky Gervais in London in October, went for a leisurely shopping trip to Oldham and still had time to do some work on my sonnet corona. It was that strange day after altering the clocks when time seems different: sometimes passing too quickly, sometimes hardly moving, it kept being the wrong time of day; but how lovely that it was still light after 8.00 in the evening; and that sense of victory at having beaten back another winter.

On Monday I worked on my sonnet cycle in the morning. I redrafted the second and third stanzas. I tried to insert ClipArt and the screen froze twice so I had to reboot the MacBook, which meant I lost the work I had done. Twice. Note to self: don’t use ClipArt on the MacBook. Like Robert the Bruce, I tried again and managed to save the redraft this time before I lost it. In the afternoon I went to my aerobics session. Third week in a row. The fourth thoracic is better about it now, not complaining so much. Next week I’m planning to do a Pilates session on Friday afternoon as well, see how it goes.

Tuesday the timetable had work on the sonnet part of the Hill chapter, so that’s what I spent the morning doing. Mind mapping first to decide what I needed to say, then checking notes to find the relevant authoritative back-up for the arguments. I had made a good start by lunch time, which came late because I got lost in the work. I love it when that happens. In the afternoon I spent time preparing a writing activity for our Stanza meeting in the evening, and doing a bit more work on the corona. I feel as if I’m redrafting the life out of it, so I decided to leave it alone for a bit; but it’s like when you have a spot or a scab or something: you know you should’t pick at it but you can’t help it. I wanted to take it to Spelks on Friday so it was at the forefront of my mind all week.

Our Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening was good. Hilary Robinson and I prepared writing activities and we spent the session writing poetry. Hilary’s activity was based on David Tait’s idea from his Smith-Doorstop collection Self Portrait with the Happiness. My poem from that activity, ‘Self Portrait with the Rage’, was inspired by a night that happened more than twenty years ago and it involved a leopard and not a little violence to someone. I loved  writing it, a catharsis I didn’t even know my soul needed! My own activity was based around instruction manuals. I printed off a few from the internet. We wrote poems that had a story involving the thing in the manual and interspersed the lines of the poem with lines from the manual. Fun, but it also produced some good writing. I felt both my poems were worth working on at home, and that’s always a good feeling. There were only five of us at the meeting: our ‘last Tuesday of the month’ slot has been co-inciding with other poetry events in Manchester lately; two members are involved with university courses on Tuesday and one was unavoidably absent. But five members is enough when they want to be there and they are serious about their poetry. It was a good night, I enjoyed it. If you want something to fill your diary on Tuesday 25th April, 7.30-9.30, why not come along to the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar and join us for the evening? Details of our FaceBook page here:

Wednesday was my accounts day at the Black Ladd, but this week I only had the morning to work because it was Amie’s check-up at the Christie. She has to have three-monthly checks for the malignant melanoma she was treated for in 2014. All was good, and they are talking of going to six-monthly check-ups after September if she is still clear. She has come along way in two years; 2014 was horrible. If you thought melanoma was just a rogue mole and when it’s removed that’s the end of it, think again. It is malicious; it can get into the lymph system with the possibility of being carried around the body, and this is what happened to Amie. She also had sepsis following one session of surgery: having had lymph nodes removed, her resistance to infection is low. So, don’t treat ‘a rogue mole’ with kid gloves: if you’re worried, get it investigated as soon as possible.

This meant that Thursday morning I had to go back to the Black Ladd to finish the work I hadn’t got done on Wednesday. Thursday afternoon I spent a couple of hours adding a fourth sonnet to the corona. It’s in the daughter’s voice. I’m less happy with the ‘daughter’ bit, the voice isn’t right and the argument is weak, she’s not coming across in a strong light. It’s going to need some work before I send it to Jean at the end of the month. But first I needed to take it to Spelks on Friday: it was written following the prompt from Polly involving the trip to the Manchester Art Gallery to see the ‘Strange and Familiar’ photographic exhibition.

Spelks. Have I ever told you how much I love this group? It is my favourite poetry group in the world ever: a closed group of six friends who meet every month to write and share poetry. We meet in each other’s houses and it always involves food and drink. This week we met at Rod’s house and took along the poems from the photographic exhibition. Oh my, there were some good poems. I loved Rod’s poems inspired by the Orange marchers in Glasgow; and Hilary had written some good stuff in her new concise style, repetition and tight forms. But they were all fantastic. Unfortunately Polly, who set the task, couldn’t be there this month, she was at a wedding in Edinburgh, but she had sent her poems electronically, so she was definitely there in spirit. We had a lovely afternoon, as we always do. I took my corona and received some good feedback. The first two sonnets, the ones I’d worked on most, were considered the best. The third and fourth, mostly in the daughter’s voice, were less successful, which is what I had been thinking as well. I really need to rethink the daughter in this set of poems. But they liked the form of the corona and the way I had a surreptitious rhyme scheme going on. So, I’ll write it into my timetable and work on it some more. It’s like a puzzle that needs solving: it will get done; I’ll have a full draft of seven sonnets to send to Jean Sprackland by the end of April.

Saturday was very productive. The sonnet section of the critical piece is almost done and I’m pleased with it so far. I also put my ‘leopard’ poem from Stanza onto my MacBook; and I wrote a poem for NaPoWriMo, the ‘write a poem a day for National Poetry Month’; it was from a prompt from Carrie Etter involving something you collect. I wrote about my collection of teddy bears, which was vastly depleted when I donated most of them to a charity toy collection a couple of Christmases ago. I kept a few of my favourites though, including the pink and white soft toy dog my daughter had as a baby, which I ‘bought’ with two books of Greenshield Stamps. Remember them?

As this week seems to have been a lot about Amie, I’m including a poem I wrote when she was first diagnosed with the melanoma. It refers to her childhood nightmares and how a mother can sort some things quite easily, but some other things are just too big to deal with.


a zebra can’t hide

I saw it in your face today, the threat

in the shadows, your worst nightmare,

like the zebras, rabbits, alligators

that populated your childhood dreams,

came with drums into your dark, beat

toxic rhythms in your sleep. I used

to chase them out so you’d sleep again,

I could do that then. Braver than me now,

you googled nodular melanoma and faced

the M word: malignant is the grown-up

nightmare with the toxic drum. I can’t chase

this one away. I’ll not to lie to you, you said.

I’m scared. As if I couldn’t see it in your face.

As if a zebra can hide in a whitewashed room.


Rachel Davies


Spring, ducks, clocks and mothers

Make no mistake, it’s a struggle juggling life, poetry and a PhD. I have two Bachelor degrees, two Masters degrees and they were hard but I never doubted I would be able to finish them. A PhD is a whole new ball game. It is very hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and it should be. I had a conversation this week with a poet friend who is struggling with the pain-in-the-arse that is RD1. I remember it well. My own struggle with it seems a lifetime ago, it is hard and I feel her pain. But it’s a hurdle that has to be jumped in order to get onto the good stuff. And then the good stuff is hard as well. She has a fantastic PhD project, and in order to get onto that she has to sign off RD1. She can do this!

Every week I ask myself why I am putting myself through it: I don’t need to do it, I don’t need a job in academe. But of course, for me it isn’t about academe, it isn’t about employment; it’s all about a personal challenge, a vanity almost. For this friend of mine, a professional poet who is also doing some undergrad teaching at MMU, it is about career and I guess that makes it harder; she is driven as well by an ambition outside her own personal motivation. I have the luxury of saying it’s the journey, not the destination: if I don’t achieve the PhD at the end of it, at least I’ve enjoyed the ride. I’ve learned loads, had an amazing quality of mentoring by two professional academics and one wonderful poet in Jean Sprackland. The added pressure of career ambition must be unbearable. C’mon, jump that hurdle, get onto what you’re good at: poetry and the personal that’s political.

I’ve had a brilliant week this week, got lots done. On Sunday last, I started my crown of sonnets inspired by my reading of Rita Dove and the visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the City Art Gallery. I drafted three sonnet stanzas, so you could say, if you were really naff, that I have a sonnet half-a-crown! It even has a rhyme scheme of sorts; a near-rhyme scheme really. I worked a lot on the first sonnet, tightening it up, cutting the dross. I’m quite pleased with it. The other two need lots of work in terms of persona voice, form etc. I’ve tinkered with it all week. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with you yet as I’m also writing it for Spelks and I need to keep it for the next Spelkerama next week. You might see it, or some of it, soon though.

Also on Sunday, I redrafted and submitted my political rant, inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’. This is for the Beautiful Dragons anthology, Noble Dissent, which will be published later in the year. I sent the first draft to editor, Rebecca Bilkau, and she liked it but advised it needed to be tightened up, being a prose poem therefore a big block of text. I had already redrafted it by the time she got back to me; so I’m hoping the version I submitted this week will be accepted as it is. I loved writing this one.

On Monday this week it was the third and last event in the current series of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange. Carol Ann read a couple of poems; three strong MMU Writing School MA students read poems that are contributing to their portfolios; the house poets read a poem each, a fantastic new one by Mark Pajak; then Adam O’Riordan finished the evening with a reading from his new collection A Herring Famine, which Carol Ann is tipping as a major prize-winner this year. I love these events, to be steeped in poetry with the added advantage of meeting up with lots of poet friends. The next series will be in the autumn; keep an eye out for ticket sales because they go like the proverbial hot cakes.

Driving to the park and ride to catch the tram on Monday evening, my poor little motor was making a most alarming sound on right turns: sort of like a seven-league bedspring going off. It sounded expensive. I limped home at the end of the evening and didn’t move my car again until I took it to the car hospital on Thursday. On Tuesday morning I rang the Vauxhall dealership to book it in for repair: they couldn’t fit me in until April 7th. April 7th? That’s longer than it takes to see a GP! I rang the local garage just down the road and they fitted me in for Thursday morning. I settled for the local garage.

The rest of Tuesday was dedicated to PhD. I prepared a timetable of writing tasks; literally booking time slots to fit writing into my life. I worked on the advice of The Clockwork Muse by Evictor Zerubavel. He advocates seeing your writing in small, bite-sized pieces rather than the whole project: work on a couple of pages until you are happy with them before moving on. So I wrote two-page writing bites into my timetable, which only goes to the end of March: I wanted to test it out, see if I need to modify it at all before filling it in further. I worked on the first task in my timetable: reworking the first two pages of the Selima Hill section. I worked on it most of the rest of Tuesday. There is a lot to be said for working on small sections, perfecting them before moving on. Having perfected those two pages I can see now where I need to put more academic authority into them, and that will be the next task for them. That is what writing is all about: drafting, redrafting, perfecting. I think this timetable is going to be an asset. I planned creative as well as critical tasks into the timetable, so that neither dominates. I’ll be working on them side-by-side; which is good because often the critical work sparks ideas for the creative and it’s right not to wait.

On Wednesday I had to rely on lifts to get me to my job at the Black Ladd. Oh, how I hate the loss of independence when my car is off the road. So I was very pleased on Thursday morning to get it to the garage at 8.30 a.m., just when they were opening up. The mechanic had first hand knowledge of the bed-spring sound as I parked it up to wait for treatment. He said he would get back to me when he’d inspected it. We went on to Tesco to do the week’s shopping. I received the phone call at lunchtime: the driver’s side front spring had broken and needed replacing. It would cost £132, did I want him to go ahead with it? Well, I had been thinking £4-or-500 so, yes, I did want him to go ahead with it. And when he told me it would be about 2 hours, I was delighted. We went to collect it at 4.00 p.m., sounding as good as new. Oh yes, I’ll be going there again in future. Of course, waiting around for garage phone calls interrupted the flow of work on the timetable, but Thursday’s task was a creative one, and really I work best on creative writing in the early mornings, so I know I can make that up, no problem.

Friday was a lovely day: cold, but full of bright sunshine that makes you think winter is in retreat at last. We parked the car outside Uppermill and walked in along the canal path. The canal has been drained for maintenance work, just a dribble on the canal bed; but the ducks were still sitting in it, looking slightly ridiculous, like duck delegates to a conference on global warming. They were still managing to do the ‘up tails all’ thing, in only inches of water. They are pairing off for the spring reproduction, though, and the sunshine must have uplifted them somewhat. On Friday evening I met my friend Joan. We first met on holiday at Lake Como in 1995 and we have  met for dinner almost every month since then. On Friday we went to Panama Hatty’s in Prestwich. Lovely meal. The M62 was a nightmare on the drive to her house, though; for most of that section of the journey I didn’t get above 20mph and second gear; then on the way home, the exit road from the M60 to the M62 was closed, but they didn’t flag it up until I was already on the M60, so I had to do a full 360 on the roundabout and drive back to Oldham and go home by a different route. I think the ‘different route’ might become the standard route in future, cutting out the M62 altogether. It has aspirations to being a smart motorway, but it isn’t being very smart at the moment.

Saturday saw me at my desk again. The timetable said ‘rewrite the “sonnet paragraph” of the Hill section’. Well, confession: I didn’t get it rewritten; but I did do a lot of preparatory reading–Montefiore, Paterson, the Cambridge Companion– deciding what is relevant to include to enhance the argument for subversion of the form. I was pleased with what I achieved. At lunchtime I had a visit from Angus, Ben and Cooper (the Cockerpoo). They brought me a lovely bunch of flowers for Mothers’ Day. Unfortunately Amie was at work and couldn’t come: Mother’s Weekend is always a busy one in the hospitality industry. Downstairs I have cards from all my children, waiting to be opened. As the cheesy FaceBook meme says, everyday is Mothers’ Day when you have children as lovely as mine.

On Saturday night we put the clocks forward an hour: winter is officially done. I can’t wait to see this evening being light until after 8.00. Yes, we made it for another year!

I’m including a poem for my late mother this week, in honour of Mothers’ Day. I don’t write nostalgic, lovey-dovey, mumsy poems: despite–because of?–the nine children she gave birth to, our mum wasn’t the maternal sort. So my relationship with my mother isn’t one I’m sentimental about. This poem is a memory of my sister and me ‘getting it’ for laughing at the tea table. It didn’t stop us laughing though.


What I remember of the spoon is

how it was her crowd control at mealtimes

how she held it upright in her hand,

it’s handle to the table-top, how it tapped

a rhythm like a slow drum,

how when we laughed we knew the spoon

would greet us with a firm handshake,

a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself

on the back of our hands, how we tried

not to laugh but it was a contagion,

how you tried to drown your laughter

in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves

across your face like freckles and we laughed,

laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now

Rachel Davies


Strangely Familiar Big Things

This week I have successfully combined ‘life’ and ‘PhD’ to have a productive week. ‘Poetry’ has been well in the mix as well, so that, I conclude, was a good week.

First ‘big thing’: I went back to my aerobics class for the first time since the Fourth Thoracic was crushed last July. It was exactly eight months on Thursday last since the fall  so it’s been a long time since I went. It was good to see everyone; I was welcomed back like the prodigal daughter. I managed the aerobics very well, although I could feel my back getting sore by the end. I didn’t attempt the floor exercises: sit-ups, planks etc. They are for another day. I felt really good when I went for the usual post-exercise coffee, though. The down-side was that the fourth thoracic has been nagging for most of the week: I had to take painkillers on Thursday morning for the first time in months. It won’t stop me going back for more next week though!

Tuesday was the next ‘big thing’. I had to be in Uppermill for a hair appointment for 9.00 a.m. I was there early enough to call at the pharmacy for a prescription which wasn’t ready yet, so I went to my hair appointment and called back at the pharmacy after. This is only relevant because I was hoping to heat up some butternut and ginger soup I’d made on Monday and take it for my lunch as I was out all day. By the time I got home to change my sweater–all those chimbley little bits of hair, ugh–it was too late to bother about the soup, I had to be at MMU to meet Michael Symmons Roberts for 11.30; so, hairy sweater in the laundry, I set off souplessly for Metrolink. I made it to the Geoffrey Manton building for 11.20. I had the competition entries in my laptop trundle trolley: a box file with online entries, a separate ring binder with postal entries, too heavy to carry down Oxford Road. I met up with Michael in the foyer and we went up to his room  for the handover. So, if you sent poems to our Poets&Players competition, they are now in the safe reading of Michael. We can’t wait to hear his decision.

I walked back up Oxford Road, trundle trolley bouncing along behind me, over the cracks in the pavement, and took myself to the Manchester Art Gallery. I started my visit with a well-deserved pot of tea. Then, as it was 12.30 by now, I decided to have lunch before doing the work I came to do. I shared my table with two complete strangers, but we had a lovely conversation about the attraction or not of the written word: I said I had come to view the Strange and Familiar exhibition with a view to finding some poems. They loved the art, but weren’t writers at all. They wished me well in my quest. I took the lift to the second floor exhibition.

The exhibition was fantastic: mostly black and white photos taken from the fifties to the present day. I was particularly interested in the photos from the sixties, the era I grew up in, so evocative of a wonderful decade. Then I came across four huge face photographs. These weren’t beauty portraits, they were hideous: broken veins, rotting or missing teeth, over-done make-up, huge painted red lips, clogged mascara. One, the elderly woman with perm curlers on the extreme right of the series, could have been the mother in my PhD portfolio series; and, I reckoned, she could have been an elderly version of some of the trendy permissives in the sixties photos. The link was obvious and gave me an idea for a set of poems for the portfolio; possibly written as a sonnet corona. I’ll be giving this a go later today. Two birds, one stone. I was actually there to research our next Spelk activity, to write three poems inspired by the exhibition. It’s good when there is a confluence of all the aspects of my life.

I left the gallery at about 5.00. I walked out to find a coffee shop, passing the recently refurbished City Library. I haven’t been in since it was refurbed, so I decided I had time and I wandered in. I sat in the cafe, but didn’t order anything. I had the good fortune to sit down next to two elderly gentlemen who were discussing Roman history. It was too amusing to ignore; I surreptitiously took out my notebook:

Ernie: Mancini is the Roman name for Manchester.

Charlie: What about Manchuria then?

Ernie: A Manchurian is a person from Manchester.

Charlie: It must come from China then.

Ernie: Caesar either means ‘bald’ or ‘full head of hair’, I can never remember which.

…and so on. It was very entertaining. Although I do think Ernie had quite a well-read knowledge of ancient Rome; Charlie was more aspirational. I moved on. I went to a Costa for a cappuccino and an hour’s reading (Paterson’s 101 Sonnets) en route to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for the launch of my friend Fokkina McDonnell’s first poetry collection. It was a lovely evening; first some poet friends of Fokkina’s, from her poetry group in Chorlton, read their own work, then Fokkina read from her new collection: fantastic, semi-autobiographical poems from various ‘eras’ in her life. I bought her collection, asked her to sign it, dipped into it on the tram on the way home. I haven’t read it through yet, but I look forward to finding the time to do so soon.

On Wednesday my son, Michael, went home to Tidworth. It was lovely having him to stay for a few days, and he seemed quite relaxed as he left to go back to work. Later in the day, my own work at the Black Ladd went smoothly for a change and I was home by 3.00, all done including the filing I’d left for the last couple of weeks. Desk cleared, yay!

Thursday and Friday I read and reread 101 Sonnets. It was rather disappointing to see that of 101 sonneteers, Don Paterson only included 14 women poets. This, of course, reflects the sonnet as a huge element of the male canon of poetry in this country’s literary history. Shame, though, a bit of a missed opportunity I thought.

Saturday was our Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery, another ‘big thing’. There was a poetry workshop by the fantastic and vivacious Helen Mort to begin with. Lots of discussion around the poems we read as well as opportunities to write from the prompts. Then, after lunch (yes, I did manage to take a flask of soup for this one) we had the big event in the South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park. First up, Persian percussionist Arian Sadr enthralled us with his  Tonbak (Persian goblet drum) and Daf (a circular frame drum): how can ten fingers and one drum make so many varied sounds? Next Andy Hickmott read from his latest collection of poems about the history of Ancoats Dispensary; then Helen Mort gave us a reading which began with a poem we had commissioned on the theme ‘borders’. Here is a link to the commissioned poem:

More percussion from Arian after the break, then Jane Draycott read from her latest collection The Occupant. I was enthralled by a pair of green parakeets in the trees outside the window while Jane was reading. There is a small flock resident in the park. It was a wonderful afternoon of poetry and music, a real gem of an afternoon. We had a short committee meeting after the event to complete planning for the year’s programme.

So, another week done and dusted. Later today I will be attempting to put some of my notes from ‘Strange and Familiar’ into poems; hopefully into sonnets; hopefully into the start of my crown of sonnets. Watch this space.

To finish, here is a link to a sonnet by a woman poet, no less than our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Paterson had the good taste to include this one in his collection. I love it.

The Times Saturday Review, 1992

I love it when I learn new stuff!

I had an oops moment on Monday. I took the pile of coins from the restaurant to the bank. NatWest have one of those coin counting machines that sorts the coins, tells you how much you have deposited and issues a deposit slip to take to the counter. It saves a lot of time at the counter; tip the money in, wait for the slip. Except when I tried to tip the money into the maw of the machine, I missed and tipped it all over the floor. Coins everywhere! Thankfully one of the bank’s staff came to help me scoop it all up, a dirty business. Note to self: next time you take coinage to the bank, take it in more than one bag.

In the afternoon I went into Manchester to meet Hilary, Penny and Keith for a meal in Leaf before Amy McCauley’s writing workshop there in the evening. Always lovely to see them; Penny and Keith went to Simon Armitage’s reading at the Dancehouse on Oxford Road; but Hilary and I stayed for the workshop. I took a political poem I wrote in St. Ives, a bit of a rant against the class system in this country. It was a good session, some interesting writing, a mix of poetry and prose, so that’s refreshing. We stayed for a drink after the workshop: several poet friends there, as well as Amy. I was telling her about my PhD, how it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done: she completed hers last year, so she was very understanding.

Tuesday I dedicated the whole day to PhD work. I googled all the female sonneteers I read about in the Cambridge Companion. I have been inspired by the idea of a crown of sonnets, also called a sonnet corona. I hadn’t heard of it until I read this book. If you don’t know, it’s a sonnet cycle of seven or fourteen sonnets; each new sonnet begins with the last line of the last sonnet and the last line of the sonnet cycle is the first line of the first sonnet. It has a circularity, then, a relentless concentration on the central idea. I found a crown, ‘Belongings’ by Sandra Gilbert, which I really enjoyed reading. You can find it here:

I read about Rita Dove’s ‘Mother Love’, which is a modern retelling of the Persephone and Demeter myth. I ordered it second hand from Amazon. It is amazing; Dove was the Poet Laureate of the USA and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know her work until I bought this collection. Why have I never come across her work before? ‘Mother Love’ is a wonderful collection, and it ends with a sonnet crown, ‘Her Island’. I love this new-to-me form.

On Tuesday afternoon I caught the tram into Manchester to meet Peter, a colleague on the Poets&Players committee. He brought the postal entries for me to put with the online entries to take to Michael Symmons Roberts on Tuesday this week. I met Peter and his wife in the Rylands Library cafe for the hand-over. So that’s it, when I hand over to Michael, my part in the competition is over for another year; apart from, hopefully, introducing Michael at our winners’ celebration event in April, details here, along with other forthcoming P&P events:

Coming Events

On Wednesday I had a virtual PhD support meeting with Jean Sprackland. Jean is on Sabbatical this term but had agreed to ‘meet’ via an Adobe chatroom. I had sent her four poems in February, and it was these we discussed. Jean really liked ‘Code’ and ‘Exposed’, both of which I posted on here in early drafts. She liked the new creative voice in them and advised me to try to develop this; they are different from my normal poetic voice and quite exciting for that. She liked ‘Weaving’ least of all: less exciting than the others, and I would agree with that. She advised me to go to an art gallery for inspiration that isn’t autobiographical, which is where ‘Code’ and ‘Exposed’ took me and that’s why I like them both. I like an outward looking challenge. She gave me good ideas on minimal revisions, and a long look at the other two. We also discussed the sonnet, and particularly the crown. I said I could see how it could be adapted to suit dialogue between a mother and daughter in that circular way these conversations sometimes go, and the sonnet is always an exciting form to subvert by meter and rhyme scheme. So, I am committed to giving it a go before our next face-to-face meeting  toward the end of May. Ooh, watch this space.

On Thursday I sent off a couple of poems to the ‘And Other Poems’ call for submissions for St. Patrick’s Day. The poems are both loosely Irish, one probably more than the other; but I sent them anyway. I’m waiting to hear. I did hear from the Yorkmix competition: I wasn’t on their shortlist, ho hum. It’s a poet’s life: submission and rejection with the occasional ray of light from an acceptance or a competition success. Pick up that rejected poem, dust it off and send it somewhere else. My friends Keith Lander and Bernie Cullen were both on the shortlist, so that’s good news for them: I wish them both luck with the final decision.

Saturday was absolutely dedicated to work. I wrote my RD9 of the ‘meeting’ with Jean and sent it off to her and to my Director of Studies, Antony. I spent a couple of hours writing a poem for the ‘Noble Dissent’ anthology from Beautiful Dragons. It’s an anthology inspired by our favourite dissenters. I wrote a poem in the style of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, a prose poem I have loved for a long time. It is a dissent against the roles and behaviours ascribed to girls in a patriarchal society. As a piece of writing, it’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I love its pace and the relentless nag of it. I adapted it for my own poem about modern politicians, also a bit of a rant. I can’t post it here because it is for publication in the anthology; but I can post a link to ‘Girl’ so you can read it if you want to. I read my poem to Bill in the afternoon. I got really constructive feedback: ‘I don’t like it at all, the repetition’s boring’. Come on Bill, don’t hold back, say it as you mean it!

In other news, my son Michael came to stay yesterday for a few days, until Wednesday next week, so that’s a bit of a treat. Last evening we went out for a meal with Amie and her partner. It’s always good to have the offspring together; just a shame Richard couldn’t be there as well. He’s a secondary school teacher, so too busy getting ready for the big offensive of summer exams.

That’s it then; another week under my belt. I downloaded another book onto my Kindle this week: The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zerubavel, an Ivy League professor. It’s a practical guide to organising your writing tasks: lots of good advice about timetabling your writing into your lifestyle, actually planning writing times in. I like this idea. The book also gives good advice on how to see your writing as bite size pieces, not as an unmanageable whole. It advises writing in manageable pieces, say two or three pages a day, and being prepared for the first draft to be totally unsatisfying but to do it anyway and revisit it later when the whole thing is in first draft. Well, I know all about that!

Here’s a link to Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’; I hope you like it as much as I do.

These rules are NOT made to be broken

The week started with a long journey by train. I said goodbye to St Ives, train to St Erth, then, yes, the train from St Erth did journey straight through to Manchester Piccadilly. We caught that train at 1.00 p.m. and by the time we arrived in Manchester at 8.00 p.m. our bums were welded to the seats. It’s a long time to be confined to a seat with half a window and only chocolates for company. Next year I’ll drive down, breaking the journey with a hotel stop half way. Yes, I will be going again next year, it was a fantastic week.

Monday was the closing day for the Poets&Players competition. My inbox was full of entries to be processed, despite keeping the spreadsheet up to date while I was away. I already had more than 100 poems to print off while I was away; that number increased to about 400 by deadline. So that took most of my week: Tuesday and Thursday seemed to involve nothing else. I eventually printed off the last entry at 11.30 on Thursday night. It’s always such a relief to get that job done.

Now, a paragraph or two about following the rules!

The rules state ’40 lines maximum, excluding the title’: that’s clear then. So why send a poem that has 120 lines; but just to convince me, number it 1 to 40, with each number covering 4 or 5 lines of poetry? Did you think I wouldn’t notice? The 40 line rule is designed to get a poem onto one side of A4 paper. When your poem runs to 2 and a half pages of A4, I’m going to notice you infringed the rule, no matter how hard you try to dupe me.

The rules state ‘no illustration or photographs’: why, on the header of your poem, then would you draw a huge picture of your pet rabbit  or include photos of you and your friends taking al fresco coffee somewhere on the continent?

The rules ask for poems to be sent in a single attachment file, .doc, .docx or pdf, single spaced in a clear font size 12. Why send them singly, then? Which isn’t so bad when you are only sending three, but ten? Think of the poor administrator who has to open each file and then print them off separately, when that task could be undertaken once. And why send them via dropbox or other route that makes it almost impossible to print off?  Your poem should sing from the page, it should be a joy to read, a pleasure to look at if you want to get it noticed, not written in a font that shouts from the page, or one that is so ugly it is barely readable.

The rules clearly state no changes will be made to the poem once submitted; so don’t send me a poem, then a revision the next day, then a second revision a week later. Your first submission is the one that will be processed, so make it the best you can before you send it in. And don’t send poems that are previously published, then read the rule that says they can’t be previously published and ask me to withdraw that poem. And make sure the poems you send are the same as the titles you listed on your application form. Please, make a difficult job easier, not even more difficult. Roll on next year!

Wednesday was my day at my daughter’s pub restaurant, where I do the books. There was a lot to do this week, with being away last week; so it was difficult enough without the accountant messing up the payroll. When I stopped for lunch, I bumped into one of the waitresses who should have been on the payroll and, I realised, wasn’t. So after lunch I rang the accountant and pointed out that members of staff (there were two of them) were missing from the payroll. When we investigated, we discovered that he had sent me the payroll for February 9th by mistake; I hadn’t noticed and had paid most of the wages by BACS via online banking. So when he sent the correct payroll for the week, I had to work out the difference between what I had paid them and what I should have paid them and make adjustments accordingly. So, it was about 6.00 p.m. when I got finished there; normally I’m home about 3.oo. As if life isn’t full enough of things to do without making life more involved than it needs to be.

Friday morning, after a bad night’s sleep due to the late night processing of competition entries, I was sitting up in bed at 5.00 writing the first section of a ‘long poem’, our task this month for Spelks. My life has been so manic this month, I had no time to write it before. I took notes of our journey to St. Ives, and planned to make my long poem from that. I wrote myself as far as Birmingham on Friday morning, but it had the hallmark of a long poem, as that section flowed onto two sides of A4. It’s not a very good poem, it’s very first draft, but at least I had something to take to Spelks on Friday afternoon. Have I ever told you how much I love Spelks? It is my favourite poetry group, made up of six friends who meet monthly at each others’ houses with poems we write from a prompt the previous month. As usual there were some cracking poems; mine definitely needs some work, and I doubt it’ll ever be finished; but I’ll post a bit of it at the end of this blog so you can have a taste. I did also take some of my St. Ives poems, and I was much happier with them, but I have sent them off to various poetry outlets, so I can’t post them here yet.

What does this all tell you about my week? Yes, apart from reading at bedtimes and early mornings, PhD work has not even been in the back seat, it has been stored well and truly in the boot of my life. Saturday I got round to some serious contribution. I tried, and failed, to locate a PhD thesis my Director of Studies had recommended I read, so I’ve asked for clarification. I revisited my research proposal and posed myself some revised questions in the light of the renegotiated critical/creative weighting. And I finished reading the Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet: what a fascinating book! Is there no end to the reading I have to do; each book leads to three or four other books. This book is a collection of essays about sonnets from Dante and Petrarch to the twenty first century; I knew the sonnet had a history, but such a colourful one? I’ve learned so much. I need to revisit it now (thank goodness for Kindle: I highlighted the bits I need to revisit) and decide how I will use the reading in my writing. While I was reading on Saturday morning, there came a huge rap at the door. A teacher who was on my staff in a past life when I was head of a primary school in Hyde was just passing and thought she’d call in. Lovely to see her: she was acting deputy head when I had a particularly nasty time at school and was always very supportive. We had a cuppa together and lots of ‘catch-up’ chat. But that meant my PhD time was eroded yet again.

I started writing this blog to see how a PhD would fit into my life with family, poetry and all the other demands on my time. I feel my commitment to the work has been back sliding this past few weeks, other priorities have taken precedence. I need to rent a holiday cottage, I think,  and go away on my own and prioritise PhD work for a whole week, no other demands on my time. And I will, soon, when I have nothing else in my diary. I will have to clear a week somewhere toward the end of April, certainly before the end of May. I can’t get a PhD without doing the spadework.Watch this space.

So, here’s an excerpt from my long poem about the journey to St. Ives. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but I’ll post a couple of cuts. One is a reflection on comparisons between the Cheshire Plain and my native Fens; the other is a humorous conversation I got into with fellow travellers just as we were pulling into Birmingham New Street.



… on the screen of my window the story of Cheshire

is constantly rewinding as we travel to yesterday, the sun

is a peppermint licked smooth by a planet still living

its childhood behind weakening cloud.

Cheshire makes me nostalgic for the fens of my childhood,

it’s similar but different, the Fens’ brand of flatness has less trees,

more horizon, the villages in Cheshire look like an architect planned them,

in the fens they’re like buboes on the skin of the landscape;

in Cheshire there’s hedges and copses in the flatness, in the fens

only dykes and the fields are the thing.


We stop at Wolverhampton where the world and her husband

pile into the carriage; while first class is empty, in the hoi-poloi carriage

there’s standing room only, the aisles packed with people and we listen

to a couple who’re planning a wedding, the colour theme is yellow

and she’s asking her mother what’s a decent alternative to a frock,

she thinks trousers, I suggest yellow velvet, a nice pair of knickerbockers

and her mother agrees but the daughter’s not seeing it; her mother thinks

it would look lovely with a neat little pillbox like Hepburn in Charade,

perhaps white trimmed with yellow, a bow at the nape. I can tell

by her face that the daughter wants to hit me but we’re off

at the next station, we’re at Birmingham New Street.


Rachel Davies

March 2017

Actually, I only met a man with one wife

This week I’ve been on a poetry retreat in St. Ives. The worst bit was the journey here, the best bit was all the rest. Sun, sea, fresh air, pasties, cream teas and poetry: I feel so revived.

I left home at 8.00 a.m. on Sunday last to get the train to St. Ives from Manchester Piccadilly. I met Hilary Robinson in M&S Just Food where we bought a picnic for the long journey. In the event it was a good job we over-purchased: it’ll be a long journey, Caruthers, and we’ll need to use our rations wisely.

We caught the train in plenty of time for ‘take off’; we settled into our seats, reading materials and rations close at hand. The train left on time. I read my Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet en route, and took notes of the journey for the long poem we have start to write for Spelks next week. First stop, Birmingham. We made our connection, settled into our new seats and waited for departure. We waited and waited. At last an announcement: we apologise for the delay, we hope to be able to leave shortly. Thirty minutes passed, by which time we were stressing about connections at Taunton. At last another announcement: we apologise for the delay, one engine is not working, we have only one engine. We will be leaving shortly but will need to travel slowly as we are an engine down. Thank you for your patience. The last sentence was redundant; we didn’t have any patience left, we knew we would definitely be missing our next connection. But the train did leave ‘shortly’ and we settled down, read, took notes and ate our rations sparingly, Caruthers.

The train, rather than getting to Taunton by the shortest route, actually called at Newport, Gwent, so I guess you could say it was international travel. We pulled into Newport and backed out, travelled onto Taunton; except by now we had decided to not get off at Taunton: our connection was well missed by now, so we would go on to Plymouth and get a Penzance train from there. The train attendant agreed that was probably best. Except, approaching Newton Abbot, the announcement came across that this train will terminate at Newton Abbot. Passengers for Plymouth and Penzance should leave here. So we were stuck in Devon, needing to find our own way to St. Ives; thank goodness for We met Helen Kay on the train just before Newton Abbot, so we three musketeers journeyed on together. Hilary had the foresight to ring the hotel to ask them to save us a meal: they said it would probably be a salad, which was most disheartening on a cold February day. I so needed stodge.

We managed to get a train in Newton Abbot which took us all the way to St. Erth and our last connection to St. Ives. Except that train was also running slightly late and it pulled into St. Erth two minutes after the last train for St. Ives had left. So we are stranded on another station, with a young man and his daughter, looking like an Enid Blyton book cover: Five don’t go to St. Ives. Thank fully there was an MPV taxi in the car park. It seemed a tall order, but the lovely taxi driver got us all in, including copious luggage, and eventually we made it to Treloyhan Manor, more than twelve hours after we left home. We were sent straight to the lounge for our meal: huzzah, it wasn’t a salad it was a reheated roast dinner. We made it Caruthers: eat, drink and be merry. We washed it down with a Rattlers Cider. While we were eating, Bernice turned up: she’d also had a train journey from hell. She is not good on her feet and, although she travels alone, she has assistance with her connections. Her first connection, also at Birmingham, had separated her from her luggage, which she didn’t get back until midweek and for which she had to pay the enormous sum of £70.00 for the courier. Outrageous.

Enough! I realise I have ranted on for 700 words and haven’t even got beyond day one! My room has a lovely sea view, so that was restorative:


and I’m pleased to say, the rest of the week has been wonderful. Hilary and I had Monday to ourselves until the course proper began at 4.00 p.m. (actually 3.30 if you count the wonderful cream tea the hotel provided every day)! We walked into St. Ives after breakfast, looked around the shops, planned to go to the museum to see the world’s smallest dog (yes really) and visit the Tate, but both were closed for refurb; so we had to make do with the shops and a beach bar for al fresco Rattlers looking out to sea.

We met the other course participants, and its leaders Kim Moore and David Tait, over said cream tea at 3.30. The course was themed ‘Panorama!  Poems from around the world’. Through the week we read poets from China and the far east, the Americas and Eastern Europe. It was refreshing in this awful age of closing perspectives to raise our eyes above our own horizons to celebrate the power of the human voice to cross continents. We had a couple of hours writing on Monday before dinner, then in the evening we all took a favourite poem by a poet who wasn’t us and had a read around. We had a wonderful evening with a variety of poetic voices. You probably won’t be surprised to hear I took a Selima Hill poem.

Tuesday, Wednesday: full-on days of workshop. We wrote poems responding to the poems we read, and I have to say the standard of response was amazing. Most of the poets on the course were experienced, published poets so the work produced was impressive. I loved the poems David brought from China, his adopted home. No, they weren’t comfortable poems, they were often disturbingly troubled; but they often gave a voice to the voiceless, the anonymous worker. Wonderful and disturbing in equal measure. I feel I got some poems worth the effort, and worth working on when I get home.

On Tuesday after dinner, Kim and David gave us a reading of their own poems, which was really enjoyable; and on Wednesday the wonderful Penelope Shuttle was the guest poet. She read two fifteen minute slots. I decided she was a Time Lord: she read for fifteen minutes that passed like fifteen seconds and she managed to pack in fifteen hours worth of words. The time passed so quickly: she was so entertaining to listen to; and I have two more signed collections to add to my poetry library at home.

On Monday the headcold I brought with me to Cornwall was in full swing, so Hilary and I walked to a near-by Tesco for Hall’s soothers and Vicks Vapour-rub (the old remedies are the best!). While we were there we found Rattlers cider on offer, three bottle for £5, compared with the £4.50 each in the bars, so we availed ourselves of the offer, chilled it by hanging it out of the window in a carrier bag, and drank chilled cider in Hilary’s room, like the two devoted students we are.

On Thursday, after a very short workshop indoors, Kim sent us out into St. Ives to find a poem among the speech we heard, so Hilary and I set off together through the hotel grounds down to Porthminster Beach, not really knowing where a poem was going to come from. Imagine our delight when, as we were walking down The Warren, we bumped into Simon Armitage walking up–of all the streets in all the world…! We stopped for a chat–I know Simon from when he was a tutor on my MA Creative Writing course at Manchester Met. Here was the first stanza of my poem arriving fully formed, then. The rest took care of itself as I relied on conversations I had in charity shops, and even with a fledgling seagull over the pasty I had for lunch. Back in the classroom, the consensus was that we had made it up, the bit about Simon, but it was absolutely true and a highlight of the week for me.

On Friday we had a critiquing workshop; we all took along twelve copies of a poem we had written in the week, or one we had brought from home for feedback from the group. I took a poem I wrote during the week, about a spider who used to live in my house and whom I called Harold Abrahams on account of the rapid circuit of the lounge he made every evening. I might post it here one day, but not yet; it still has places to go. Friday night was the chance for course participants to read their work to an audience, which included other participants and a group of serious walkers who were also on holiday in the hotel and had asked if they could come along. It was a lovely night; and the walkers mostly managed to stay until the end despite most of the poetry not being rhymed. We had very positive feedback from them.

Saturday most of the group left for home; Hilary and I had one more day to enjoy so we took ourselves off on a jaunt to the Eden Project near St. Austell. I’m happy to report the connections we planned for public transport worked like a well-oiled machine; and we got our student concession on the price of entry plus an extra discount for proving we arrived by public transport. Oh my, what a wonderful day that was. We only got to see about half of it, due to the shortish time we were there, but we visited the Mediterranean and the Rain Forest biomes. Oh, the plants, the blossoms and the gorgeous little Rourou birds in the Rain Forest. I fell in love.

On top of all this, I have kept up the reading on the sonnet and maintained the processing of the P&P competition entries. I’ll have a lot of printing to do when I get home, but at least all the entries are on my spreadsheet.

It’s been a busy but wonderful week. We’ve booked for Kim’s next carousel at Grange-over-Sands in December; and will almost certainly come back to St. Ives for her next course in Feb 2018. I think I might drive down next year though. Or fly. Trains? I’ve yet to be convinced I’d do that again.

I met a man with 7 wives…

It’ll be a quick one this week. I’m off to Piccadilly Station early tomorrow morning so I’m writing this in bed on Saturday night for a change. I’m going to a week-long poetry retreat with Hilary Robinson. Kim Moore and David Tait are running the course and Penelope Shuttle is coming to read to us on one evening. There’ll be lots of poetry friends there and I’m a little bit excited about all this!

So, another week of poetry, life and PhD; not necessarily in that order. On Monday I went to the Royal Exchange Theatre for the latest Carol Ann Duffy and Friends event. Carol Ann wasn’t there this week; she is suffering from the awful microbes that seem to be bowling over all my friends at the moment. Instead, we had a variety of ‘Carol Anns’: Michael Symmons Roberts stepped in at the last minute to introduce the event and read a poem from his forthcoming collection. It was a longish poem about Manchester and her history; fantastic and original and creative: it will make the centre-fold of the collection, and will span a double page spread. Keith Hutson was CAD for the second half introductions. Elaine Feinstein was the headline act this time. She got off to a slow start, but when she warmed up she was amazing. Eighty six years old and still doing entertaining readings. She talked of her time at Cambridge in the late fifties, mentioned a Fulbright scholar who was there at the same time, and in my mind I imagined her being on first name terms with Sylvia Plath, who I am guessing was the Fulbright scholar in question; there’s a good chance anyway. Feinstein talked a lot about her conversations with Ted Hughes during her reading. For me, though, the highlight was MMU MA Creative Writing student Paul Stephenson and his reading of the sequence of poems he wrote following the 2016 Paris bombings, which he experienced personally as a resident in Paris at the time. The poems form his Happenstance pamphlet, The Days that Followed Paris; more details here:

Poetry and Preservation

Tuesday was my PhD supervisory meeting. I was a bit nervous about this one; but I received some positives on my writing and really helpful and constructive feedback from Antony and Angelica. I still have a long way to go; I asked them both if they thought I could do it; both said yes they thought I could, but it will be hard work and a huge time commitment. We discussed the possibility of transferring to the MFA, which is a doctoral level degree but doesn’t include the critical element. The MFA is about preparing a full length poetry collection for publication. I reflected on this when I got home but I have decided to stick with the PhD: ultimately, I might not be successful and that would be painful; but it would be more painful to give up now. So I recommitted all over again. I had put something in my writing about Selima Hill subverting the form of the sonnet and Angelica thought that would be an interesting idea to unpack; so I loaded the Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet onto my Kindle on the way home, and that will be the mainstay of my reading while I’m away in St Ives.

I did a lot of reflection prior to writing the RD9 record of the meeting and I realised I have been a bit scared of the PhD until now. I need to relax a bit and enjoy it more. I felt I needed to revise my plan, I feel a bit as if I’m floundering without a clear plan of action since the critical element was renegotiated; but A & A said not to worry about that. So I’ll do the reading, write when I’m ready and let it ‘grow organically’, in Angelica’s words. After all, cut and paste is a wonderful facility. If I achieve this, there will be the biggest party ever thrown on Saddleworth. I sent the RD9 off on Thursday.

On Friday I had a little light relief when I went for dinner with my friend Joan. I promised her I would mention her in the blog this week. She passed the first anniversary of being a grandmother last week, so there were lovely photos of Madeleine, who we call ‘Busby Babe’ in honour of Joan’s lifelong love of Manchester United, playing in the snow near their home in Chicago.

And all week I have been keeping on top of the competition entries for Poets&Players. They are coming in steadily now; but this ten days–the closing date is Feb 28th–they will be coming in thick and fast. And I’ll be away in St Ives, so I think I’ll have a huge job when I get home. I should be able to process the entries into my spreadsheet while I’m away; but they will all need printing out when I get home next weekend. Details of the competition are here:

Competition 2017

Please enter: as the old Lotto motto goes, you gotta be in it to win it. And Michael Symmons Roberts reading your poems is a prize in itself, isn’t it?

Saturday I spent reading the sonnets book; and packing my suitcase. I keep a packing list on my iPad. I am a last minute packer and it doesn’t seem quite so tedious if you have a list to remind you what to pack. So now I’m all ready and fired up for the week. I’m hoping to  manage three or four hours of PhD work a day: some reading at bedtime and a couple of hours before breakfast: as you perhaps know by now, I’m a very early riser.

I’m posting a poem I wrote on Kim’s last St Ives workshop in October 2014 this week, in anticipation of another lovely week away. I can’t believe that was more than two years ago! I wrote this when my daughter, Amie, was having treatment for malignant melanoma. It was a worrying time and my head was in a bad place. It was a particularly drizzly morning in an otherwise week of lovely weather when Kim sent us all out to write about the town. This is the poem I wrote on that  drizzly morning.

Love Letter To St Ives 


Even though the future sits at your feet like a black dog

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 the 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