Poetry and ‘Not’ Poetry

IMG_1173
The view from my hotel bedroom, across Carbis Bay

I’ve been in St Ives for a week with some lovely people, the community of poets: old poetry friends: Hilary Robinson, John Foggin, Bernice Reynolds; and lovely new friends: Liz, Sally, Harriet. There’s no literary merit in a list of names, so I’ll just say everyone on the course was talented and kind, it was a fantastic week of poets, poems, reading, writing, discussing. It’s been terrific. Hilary and I left Manchester Piccadilly at 9.30 a.m. on Sunday and arrived at the hotel just before 6.00 p.m. Sunday evening was our own time, the poetry course started on Monday afternoon. We decided on an early night: I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug that had laid me low last week.

On Monday morning we walked into St Ives for a look around. We went to Tate Modern for a guided talk about the Virginia Woolf exhibition; although in truth it was a misguided tour: the tour guide talked about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of Your Own’; and talked of Freud’s theory of the subconscious. Anyone who knows Woolf recognises the mistaken ‘Your’ in that title; and Freud talked of the Unconscious, not the subconscious. But still, it was interesting to listen to someone who appeared to know about the artwork. The Laura Knight landscapes were extraordinary, they could’ve been painted last week, and her portraits are legendary. So altogether it was a morning well spent. We bought a combined ticket to visit the Tate and the Barbara Hepworth museum within the week, so we still had the Hepworth to look forward to. We had a look around the shops in St Ives; I bought two long sleeve tee shirts from Seasalt, because I’d only brought warm clothing away with me and it was summer in St Ives.

The poetry course started at 4.00 p.m. with a joint workshop from Kim Moore and Helen Mort. Oh my, what two terrific poets to work with. The workshop focused on silence, white space, line breaks. It was only an hour long, to get us in the mood, but I got a decent, very short poem from the writing exercise. We were given one-liners from published poems and had to use that as a first line or the title of a poem. I got ‘a large silence’, and I wrote two pages of words before a very short poem—only thirteen words—formed itself.

After the evening meal, we all read a favourite poem by a published poet. I chose Simon Armitage’s specular poem from his collection ‘Out of the Blue’ (London: Enitharmon 2008). It is a series he wrote as a Channel 5 commission to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 9:11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. A specular poem is a poem that repeats itself backwards, as if in a mirror. The extraordinary thing about this particular one is that it’s a prose poem, a big block of print. You don’t realise it’s a specular poem for some time past the turn. The crafting in it is impeccable. After we’d all read our favourite poems—and there were some cracking poems people had chosen—we all dispersed to our beds.

After breakfast on Tuesday we had a workshop led by Helen Mort on ‘Saying the Unsayable’ in poetry. The best part for me was writing a ‘not’ poem, describing a difficult event as if it hadn’t happened. I’ll post the poem that came from this activity at the end of the blog. We had a free afternoon; I spent it drafting the morning’s poems onto my laptop. After dinner Kim and Helen gave us readings of their poetry, a master-class in presenting poetry to an audience.

Wednesday, a workshop led by Kim: ‘Who are you talking to?” looking at point of view and imagined audience. It was really about subverting the focus, ‘lying’ in poems, telling others’ stories as if they are your own. There were some really good poets on the course and the standard of work participants were prepared to share was very high. I wrote an eighteenth ‘alternative mother’ from this workshop, based on Alice in Wonderland. Hilary and I walked into St Ives for lunch after the workshop then we visited the Barbara Hepworth Museum. If you’re ever in St Ives, this is well worth a visit. The sculptures in the garden are particularly gorgeous. They cry out to be touched, and most of them you are allowed to touch: they are so smooth and curvily tactile.

Local based poet Katrina Naomi joined us for dinner and gave a reading in the evening. I wanted to stay and talk to Katrina after her reading: I really enjoyed her PhD thesis last year and I wanted to tell her so. But I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug from last week: and I just had to go to bed, I felt so tired. I fell asleep before I remembered I hadn’t even spoken to my partner, Bill.

After breakfast on Thursday we had a workshop—‘Leave it out’—with input from both Kim and Helen. It was about subverting the truth in a poem, how we write unpleasant experiences, find a way to address difficult subjects. I wrote about an art teacher I had when I was in the first year of grammar school. She had a nervous breakdown while she was teaching us, although we didn’t know that at eleven. She kept asking us to paint arctic scenes then just upped and left the classroom mid-lesson and never returned. I embellished the story to make it ‘tellable’.

We walked into St Ives in the afternoon because Hilary wanted to get some fabric she’d seen the day before; but we had to be back at 3.00 p.m. because we had individual tutorials with Helen Mort. We’d given her three poems earlier in the week and we met to get feedback on them, one-to-one. I’d given Helen a couple of my ‘alternative mother’ poems and I had some really useful feedback. The good news is, she really liked them; and it’s a good feeling when a poet as good as Helen Mort says positive things about your work. I had my first Cornish Cream Tea after the tutorial; it’s a mark of how much better I was feeling on Thursday. I hadn’t fancied a cream scone all week.

On Thursday evening we had a sort of poetry quiz. We’d been asked to submit a poem of our own, anonymously, and these were distributed among the group. We each read the poem we’d been dealt and then we had to try to decide which of us had written it. Obviously, we all got at least one right, because our own poems were in the mix; and Bernice, who is from South Wales originally, had submitted a poem with the huge clue of a Welsh cake in it, so most people—although not everyone—got that one right. At the end of the evening, these were the only two I’d guessed correctly, but Hilary won the prize for having five correct guesses. She won a Weetabix purloined from the breakfast buffet with some after-dinner mints left on the dinner table when the evening meal was done.

Friday we had a critiquing workshop. We all took one poem, either brought from home or one we’d written in the week, and received feedback from group members. I took the ‘Alice poem’ I wrote earlier in the week and I had lovely, positive feedback. Mostly they wanted more of it, so I’m committed to developing it. The standard of poetry we discussed was incredibly high. In the evening, course members held a reading. Each of us read two poems to the group. I chose to read two of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, including ‘Pope Joan’, which I’d been working on during the day; and one of the poems I’d taken to the tutorial with Helen on Thursday. I’d worked on it as a result of her feedback and it’s a stronger poem for the redrafting. It was a good night: everyone read some cracking poems, lots of different styles. It highlighted what a talented bunch of poets I’ve been working with all week.

After breakfast on Saturday, most people started to wend their ways home. Hilary and I had booked an extra night at the hotel because we’re in Cornwall and it seems wrong not to see something of the area while we’re here. We planned to go to Healey’s Farm, between Truro and Newquay, where they make Rattler Cyder, a favourite tipple of ours while we’re here. We were going to do some serious tasting. But it takes about three weeks to get there on public transport so we decided to give it a miss and visit Penzance instead. We had a good look around the shops: I bought a brand new maxi-dress in a charity shop, still with the original tickets on; and a ‘vintage’ knee length black velvet jacket which had been revamped with gold printed cog wheel patterns. It’s lovely, and dirt cheap.

This evening there were just us and two other poets who have also booked extra nights at the hotel. We all had dinner together and shared a bottle of wine and it was a good end to the evening. You’ll notice I am writing this on Saturday evening, that’s because tomorrow will be a bit rushed. We’re all packed and ready to leave after breakfast. I won’t be able to post my blog until later, probably from the train home, because my MacBook stopped talking to the hotel wi-fi for some reason. Ho hum.

So, here’s the ‘no’ poem, where you write about an event by saying it didn’t happen. I think it makes it more interesting than just narrating the event. I don’t think you could get away with it too often; but it was an interesting exercise to do it once.

Remember, it’s very early draft:

 

How it didn’t happen

Moon wasn’t
a football rolling along Mossley hill.
It wasn’t raining and
the March wind didn’t howl.
She wasn’t surprised by his car
not standing in the drive.
Night wasn’t washed
with India ink, windows
weren’t black squares in pebbledash.
House wasn’t silent as death.
Note wasn’t propped on mantle,
wouldn’t tell her
in that unfamiliar hand
what she didn’t know already:
that she wasn’t just dust
scattered by the closing door.

Rachel Davies
April 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Spawn of the Dragon

 

I’ll have to do a short post this week; although it’s been a week as full as any other. I’ll stick with the highest and lowest points.

High point number one: my son Richard came to visit on Wednesday. He’s a teacher, so mostly we get to meet up in the school holidays. He drove up from Peterborough on Wednesday morning and we met at Amie’s house. We took Amie’s dogs for a walk along the canal from Diggle to Grandpa Green’s for coffee and doggy sausages,  then walked back via Woolyknits café for a light lunch and more doggy sausages. Back to Amie’s house after lunch for coffee. I had an appointment Uppermill in the late afternoon and when I got back from there we all watched the film ‘Wonder’, about a young boy with a genetic facial disfigurement. Oh my, Kleenex shares went up that day. Richard stayed the night with us, so I got to have breakfast with him before he drove back to Peterborough to do what all teachers do in the holidays: work.

Low point number one: on Thursday afternoon I got back from sorting the books at Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant to find a letter from Manchester City Council with a photo of my car driving along a bus lane on Oxford Road, fine £60.00; halved if I paid within a fortnight. This was the culmination of a week of stress I won’t go into but it felt like the right time to go out and buy a gun and shoot up the Town Hall. Have you tried to drive Oxford Road lately? And it was a Saturday mid-morning, hardly rush hour traffic: mine was the only vehicle in sight! You don’t know you can’t turn into Oxford Road until you’re in a side road ready to turn into Oxford Road and it’s too late to turn round a go a different route anyway. Grrr! My stomach was clenched tight with this last straw of stress.

Low point number two: it wasn’t stress clenching my stomach. It was a tummy bug.  I spent Thursday evening being sick and Friday all day sleeping back to some kind of recovery by Saturday. Enough said on that.

High point number two: the eponymous high point. On Saturday, feeling feeble and well rung out, I collected Hilary and drove us to Arnside to the English home of Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Beautiful Dragons Press. We are working with her to produce the first in a series of Dragon Spawn Pamphlets. We, Hilary and I, will be the Dragon’s first-borns. We are to be one third each of the first Dragon Spawn, title Some Mothers…and my third will feature versions of my portfolio poems. It was this we went to Arnside to discuss. Dragon Spawn is a series of pamphlets, each by three Beautiful Dragon poets, approached by Rebecca, who don’t have previously published pamphlets or collections, a sort of half-way house to a pamphlet of our own. Yes, and I get to share it with my conjoined twin, Hilary Robinson. How exciting is this? Rebecca made us a gorgeous lunch, which I did my best to honour despite food still being a bit alien to my body; we got to meet Xabi, her beautiful Airedale Terrier; and we had a lovely afternoon discussing the poems we’d submitted. The deadlines are tight: Rebecca lives in Germany most of the year and she is returning in a week. We have until the beginning of May to confirm the poems for the pamphlet, and until early Autumn to see the dragon crack its shell. There might well be more exciting news regarding the official Dragon Spawn launch, but for now my lips are sealed on this one.

Low point number three: closely related to low point number two, because I was poorly Thursday evening into Friday, I didn’t do all the stuff I needed to do on Friday in order to keep on top of a busy week. Mostly this involved doing some ironing and packing my case for St. Ives. Also, I had to miss a haircut, so by the time I come back from St Ives I’ll be looking very ‘Age of Aquarius’–you have to have lived some years. So when I got back from Arnside on Saturday, tired and feeling pale, I had to pack my case for a week away with Kim Moore and Helen Mort on a writing week in St Ives. It was the last thing I wanted to do–the packing, not the week away. Bill, bless him, cooked pie and chips—no he didn’t make the pie!—while I made a start on packing. I filled my case with un-ironed clothing and packed my travel iron as well. I’ll have to iron stuff as I need to wear it this week.

High point number three: Hilary’s husband is collecting me to go Piccadilly station at 8.15, so I’d better get my skates on. No poem this week, I’m afraid, but I expect to have a surfeit of them by next weekend, so I’ll make sure I fit one in the next blog. Meanwhile, have a picture of a dragon hatching from its egg. That’s me, that is!

Dragon spawn

Easter weekend and no April Fools

Happy Easter, everyone. Have a lovely weekend.

This week has been all about poetry and PhD. Life has had a big slice of me, but I can’t say too much about that, because it affects other lives as well; so I’ll stick with the poetry and the PhD.

Pascale Petit got back to us with the results of the Poets & Players competition last weekend. Clearly I can’t say too much about that, but our winners have been informed with instructions to say nothing until the celebration event in May: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/   So if you heard from us this week, big congratulations. If you didn’t, we’re sorry and sincerely thankful for your support for our competition and the good work that P&P does for poetry. My advice: the poems you sent to us, send them out to some other competition or publication. It’s a thin, thin line between being a winner and not, very often. If you felt your poem was worth entering, it is worth resubmitting to somewhere else. I spent Sunday and Monday mornings sorting through my spreadsheet to find the names of winners; and trawling through emails to copy poems and email addresses to send to Janet, our committee chair. That doesn’t sound much, but it’s a time-consuming job, especially when e-addresses don’t match names. But we really do appreciate everyone who sent work in. Thank you.

Monday I settled to reading again: Robin Nelson’s Practice as Research. This book was recommended by a poet friend, Angi Holden; and it has been useful in seeing research, and research outcomes in a positive light. It is helping me get my thoughts about the thesis in order. I meant to carry on with the reading on Tuesday but life intervened and stole my Tuesday for other stuff. Sometimes life happens and there’s just nothing you can do but muck in.

On Tuesday evening it was the East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting at the Stalybridge Buffet Bar. When we got there, our booked room was full of folk drinking ale: the buffet bar is a famous ‘real ale’ watering hole. I announced that we had booked the room for a poetry event. It’s strange how the word ‘poetry’ brings that reaction where eyes blank over, expressions become bored. I told them they were welcome to stay and join in but they all declined. Poetry? I don’t think so. They picked up their glasses as one and left the room. Shame; they don’t know what they missed. Poetry, as all poetry people know, is wonderful. And Tuesday was proof of that. There were only three of us at the meeting, but we had a wonderful time discussing the poetry of Ocean Vuong. Ocean recently won the T S Eliot prize for his wonderful collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds and this is what we were concentrating on. To make it an even better evening, the buffet bar has wifi, so we hooked up to his YouTube channel and he read for us. We listened and discussed. You can find his YouTube readings, lots of them, here: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ocean+vuong
Check it out, he has such a soothing reading style. Imagine, Ocean Vuong reading at our Stanza!

Wednesday I went to the Black Ladd as usual and worked until lunchtime. At lunchtime Amie and I went to the Christie for her twice-yearly scan. I’ve posted my poem, ‘The Worst Cocktail Bar in Manchester’ on here before so I won’t do that today. But the drink she has to take prior to a scan doesn’t get any easier to swallow: literally. So it’s done now, and that’s it for another six months. She should have the results in a couple of weeks.

On Thursday my lovely grand-daughter, Corinna, graduated from Wolverhampton University. She did her nursing degree there, and now works on the critical care ward in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. She looked gorgeous in her cap and gown. I’m so proud of her, she worked hard to get there.

On Friday I went into Black Ladd again, to get done what couldn’t get done on Wednesday. I meant to stay a couple of hours, but the laptop was using its autonomy to update itself, so I had to wait ages while it did that then wait ages again while I undid the update, because when it updates Windows 10, my Sage software won’t work. This has only been a problem for me for the last couple of weeks. I don’t know how to stop automatic updates: I need to speak to Richard or Michael, who are far more computer savvy than me. I don’t want it to stop all updates, just updates to Windows 10 operating system. So, it was very late afternoon when I got home from there on Friday. Amie, bless her lovely heart, sent me home with two nut roasts, roast potatoes and veg, and a bottle of house white so I didn’t have to do more than put dinner in the oven and wait thirty minutes. It felt good not to have to think about cooking. The nut roast was delicious; the chardonnay wasn’t bad either.

Saturday I settled to work on the thesis again. It seems a long time since I did anything to it, but I’ve been leaving it alone while I did some reading. It was good to come back to it with new eyes. I’ve decided to draft it to my liking—I’ll temper the overtly autobiographical writing in it—and send it to my team for discussion sometime in late June. I enjoyed being back on the case. Starting, and restarting are always difficult times.

So, another week on the long journey to PhD. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, Chairman Mao said. PhD is a long series of single steps, a few even go in the right direction. I’m hanging in there, putting one foot in front of the other. And NaPoWriMo starts today: national poem writing month, a commitment to write a poem a day through April. I’m in Carrie Etter’s NaPoWriMo facebook group. She very generously puts thirty prompts on there in April to kick start members fulfilling the ‘poem a day’ commitment. I worked it last year, I managed something every day. It would be over-egging it to call them all poems but I did get about five decent poems out of the month. And I learned an awful lot about forms of poetry I wasn’t familiar with before. My plan is to divert the prompts into portfolio poems as much as possible. I’m looking forward to it: I’ll keep you posted. If you’re interested in being involved, check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/138265096847041/permalink/158254941514723/?comment_id=158575121482705&notif_id=1522531659476671&notif_t=group_comment_reply&ref=notif and ask if you can join the group.

That’s it then; another week worked. And this morning is Easter Sunday. I’m not doing anything special, a day at home with a bag of mini-eggs and a bottle of dry white this evening. It’s my great-grandson’s third birthday today; and tomorrow my lovely grandson Richey isn’t a teenager any more. Oh my, time does flow quickly.

My poem this week is the one I wrote for Hannah Silva’s workshop last week. It’s barely learning to walk it’s so new to the page. But it could well become another ‘alternative mother’ poem when I have time to work on it some more.

The stimulus was to imagine a neighbour watching your life then answer six or seven questions Hannah put to us about that scenario. Here it is:

 

Neighbour

Every day
she opens the curtains at dawn.
The bedroom lights
don’t go out till midnight
but she’s always up with the sun.
I like to think she sleeps
in winceyette—I heard her say
she’s sick of winter, the long
grey coldness of it, said
she was born to the sun’s heat.
She wears those boots—
all bovver and sparkle
like she’s a glam rock refugee.
She’s a poet though,
they never quite grow up.
I wonder how
she packs in so much life
on five hours sleep max.
I’m sure she’s on steroids.

Rachel Davies
March 2018

Happy British Summer Time, World

A bit late today: I lost an hour’s sleep last night, and every hour is precious to a part-time insomniac.

Life and poetry this week: PhD has been a side-show, only a slim opening in some of the poems I’ve written. On Sunday I tried to do the homework I brought home from Amie’s restaurant. I had three bank statements to reconcile with the accounts. But I couldn’t do it because the laptop had upgraded itself again to a later version of Windows and Sage wouldn’t open. Again. So I had to do a system restore—again— before I could do the work. By which time it was so cold in the office with the snow falling outside and drifting over the study windows, I decided to park myself by the fire in the lounge until the weather improved; even if that wasn’t until May.

On Monday it was Amie’s routine check-up at the Christie. Oh my, it was cold when she came to collect me at 9.00. I waited for her on the top road, and I had to sit in my car, parked up there in the snow. The wind was making me cry and it was cold enough, I felt, to freeze the tears. I’m pleased to report that the consultation went very well and she has been moved to twelve monthly check-ups now, with an oncology clinic at the six-months point to keep her under surveillance. This is good progress. A scan has been arranged: this is also for surveillance, to make sure this good progress is sustained.

Monday afternoon I met with two friends in Manchester Central Library to plan our week away in Scarborough in May. We are planning writing workshops in the mornings on three days, each of us leading on one of the days. There will be visits to York, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay on the other three days; each of us will set writing activities for one of the days we are out. I’m really excited about this, it will be a good week.

On Tuesday I went into Oldham Library for one of the free Poetry Society workshops launched by Prince William to commemorate 100 years since the end of WW1. The workshop was led by Ian Duhig and had the title ‘A Poem for Remembrance’; but it wasn’t a workshop about the war, it was about personal trauma and recovery. I met up with some poet friends who also took the opportunity for a quality free event. Ian asked us to write poems addressing our own traumas from different angles, not looking at them full-on as it were. Of course, our traumas weren’t as awful as war injuries, they were personal traumas we had felt in our everyday lives: love and loss, bereavement, separation trauma, bullying. I chose to write about something which I felt was too trivial to call trauma, but it has lived with me all my life. It was the bullying headteacher at my grammar school and his parting words to me when I left school at sixteen. I’ve spent a lifetime with his words, proving them wrong; he is a big part of the reason I embarked on the PhD in the first place. I’ll post the poem, very early draft, at the end of this blog. I should say a big thank you to the Poetry Society for offering these workshops free of charge: this one really was interesting.

I took my car to be cleaned on the way home. Oh my, it was filthy; it looked like a farm vehicle, the driver’s side covered in sprayed salt and muck from the Oldham Road, where it had been parked since Saturday because of the snow. By Tuesday afternoon I was able to park it on the drive again: only the most determined snow was still lying by the side of the lane and in the lee of the wind. At 4.00 my friend Joan came and we walked to a nearby pub, The Printers Arms, for an early evening meal. We’ve been meeting up for monthly meals since we met in 1995 at a hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Twenty three years, Joan; it seems like only last week. We’ve laughed a lot in that time. How tempus does fugit.

On Wednesday I was up early; really early. I was determined to reconcile the bank statements before going into the Black Ladd, even if it killed me trying. I hate having outstanding jobs hanging like Damocles’ sword. Luckily I’d left the Sage software open, and Windows hadn’t upgraded again. It took me an hour, but eventually I had a zero in the ‘outstanding’ box. So it’s done and I was a happy book-keeper when I went into work for the day. I was less than happy when I came home from work because the Sage programme, while working OK on the books was sticking when I asked for a VAT report. I tried a couple of times, closed the programme and tried again. I was concerned because I hadn’t done a back-up of the day’s work yet and was worried I was going to lose everything I’d entered. I’m happy to report that I eventually affected a back-up but still can’t manage a VAT report. I’ll need the accountant to see if she can sort it when she comes for the quarterly VAT meeting: she’ll need to run a VAT report then. How computers are wonderful things until they get arsey and won’t do what you ask them!

On Thursday I heard from Andy Nicholson that the podcast of my poems, recorded a few weeks back, is up and running on his website. I’m recorded reading five of my poems: check it out here: https://spokenlabel.bandcamp.com/album/rachel-davies-spoken-label-march-2018

Thursday evening we went into Oldham to see the live screening of the National Theatre’s ‘Julius Caesar’. David Morrisey was earthy as Mark Anthony; and Ben Wishaw absolutely stole the show, in my opinion, as Brutus. I loved it. The setting was modern: it began with a rock concert victory rally. The screening was from The Bridge theatre in London, beside Tower Bridge. The theatre is like a modern Globe, with space for ‘groundlings’ in the audience. The groundlings became the Roman crowd. It was so well done that now I want to go there to see a live performance. They are live-screening ‘Macbeth’ from there on May 10th: if you get chance to see it, you just must cancel anything else you have planned for that evening and get yourself to a cinema near you. You won’t be disappointed. I bought my tickets as soon as we got home.

Saturday was another day dedicated to poetry. It was the Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The day began with a Hannah Silva workshop. How good was that? Not like any workshop I’ve ever done before. We had lots of practical activities around sound making, use of voice and performance: good fun with a serious application. There was only one writing task: to think of our lives being watched by a neighbour and to write a poem based in a series of six or seven questions she asked us. This might well become another ‘alternative mother’ poem. When we read our work at the end of the workshop, Hannah cleared a performance space at the front of the room. We read our poems to the group; then she asked us to read them again in a particular style: as a barrister summing up his case; or in anger; or shout out every fourth word etc. It was useful for seeing your poetry in a different light for performance.

After a lovely lunch in the Whitworth café, the performance event in the afternoon was another jewel. Kathryn Mason and Alice Roberts, students from the Royal Northern College of Music, gave us harp duets to start both sessions of the event. In the first half, Hannah Silva performed her poetry in line with stuff she’d talked about in the morning workshop. She didn’t read; she had no paper or books. She performed from memory with the aid of a wonderful little pedal device on which she recorded appropriate voice sounds at the start of a poem, then played them as background to her words. I don’t know what the pedal device was called, but I’d love to have a play with one. It was fascinating, and her poetry is powerful. One of the poems, ‘Pain’, from her collection based in the novel 50 Shades of Grey, took every reference to pain from the novel and put them all together to make the poem. Another was a pastiche of lines from other poets containing the word ‘air’. This was exciting poetry: I loved it. In the second session Anthony Rudolf read from his collected works: he has been writing and translating poetry for more than fifty years, so it’s a big collection. His approach to performance was much more traditional than Hannah’s but it was interesting to hear a long-established poet present his work. The next P&P event is on April 21st, with Imtiaz Dharker and Karen Macarthy Woolf. Karen will run the morning workshop: find out more here: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

So. This is my poem, written at Ian Duhig’s workshop. It’s a poem about bullying; about the abuse of power; about making someone feel less than they are. He was a horrible man.

Remember, this is very early draft:

Grammar School B Stream

 Your handkerchief is how we know you
You rely on it in lessons:
when we answer your questions
you gob your derision, an unset yolk
in an albumen of phlegm, into the cotton square,
crumple it into your trouser pocket.

You have a thousand words for worthless
and in five years I’ve caught them all.

So. The last day. I come, excited,
to shake your hand and leave.
I assume you’ll let me go without wounds.
I have my dream job. I am proud of myself.
But pride comes before a fall
and I’ve underestimated you.

Your handkerchief, a neatly folded triangle
in your breast pocket,
is handy to catch your venom.
You fire your words
like pellets from a spud-gun,
each one hitting the bull’s eye.
The sharpest I hear is gutter, the place
I’ll end up, you say,
for talking to a boy from
the secondary modern school.
Your words still sting
as you wave me away.

Rachel Davies
March 2018

On not reacting too quickly

Sunday was Mothers’ Day. I had cards from all my lovely children, including the cats. I had gifts that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: theatre vouchers, flowers, a Blue Tooth beanie with built in headphones and a designer belt for getting back to my running. The most poetic gift though, was toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on every sheet. A perfect franchise idea, in my opinion.

After last week’s blog, I had lovely feedback from friends who are also doing PhD or have recently completed. Offers of coffee and chat; reminders that it is my PhD and I can present it pretty much as I want; recommendations of relevant books to support that take; and this, which sums up very nicely how I was feeling last week:

29067293_10157376080968975_7130834970624393216_o

So on Sunday I thought a lot about what I should do with Angelica’s advice re the ‘too autobiographical’ feedback. I decided to do nothing until I’d read a book recommended by Angi Holden PhD: Practice as Research in the Arts (ed Robin Nelson). I downloaded it to my Kindle. But I took Sunday off in honour of the day. Prevarication again!

On Monday I genuinely meant to go running again; I’ve let it slide, what with the foul weather and being away, but I decided to pick up a bit behind where I left off. Unfortunately it was lashing with rain and blowing a hooley when I got up so I postponed the pain. Yes, I’m a lightweight! Instead, though, I did settle to work. I wrote another ‘alternative mother’ poem so I had something new to take to The Group in the evening. Amie called in for a brew in the afternoon to make up for having had to work on Mothers’ Day. When she left I went into Manchester to meet Hilary for food in Bundobust before going on to The Group at Chapter One Books. Hilary has just got her MA results: MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from MMU. I gave her a card I bought when Bill and I went to Glasgow a few weeks back. I was always confident she’d get a distinction: she’s a very good poet.

The Group was lovely, as ever. Seven very good writers sharing work for feedback. The ink was barely dry on my ‘alternative mother’ poem. I got useful feedback: I had used ‘white’ too many times, could I find other ways to say what I was saying? Could I form it more regularly—it’s a poem about OCD? It shows how important it is to take new work to  workshops: you don’t take time to tidy it up, so don’t notice things. I’ll be working on it again in the light of their feedback.

On Tuesday I had to go into Uppermill for two appointments. I parked at the Newbank nursery at Dobcross and walked in along the canal. I ran the canal path on the way back to my car. It hurt. When I got home I dedicated the day to reading Practice as Research… I’m so pleased I did, it helped to get the feedback I had from my supervisor into some kind of perspective. Practice in the arts can be research, be it performance, composition—or creative writing; it needs rigorous planning and focus, obviously, but it should be recognised as such. I realised while I was reading that it will be hard for me not to be autobiographical when I’m reflecting on my own poetry: a good deal of it is grounded in my life. I can be objective and detached talking about Selima’s work, or Pascale’s, but I’m too close to my own poetry to detach myself from it and see it only as text. I’ll finish reading the book before I do anything rash, I decided.

Wednesday was a bit of a nightmare: the Sage software wouldn’t load on the Black Ladd laptop to allow me to do the books. I contacted the accountant: I had the software from them. I was getting an error message about ‘permission to use it on this machine’. Grrr! I had permission last week, so why not now. I didn’t get a very helpful response from the accountant: no response at all in fact. So when I’d done all I had to do without the software I decided to try a system recovery. I reasoned that the software wasn’t working now, so what was the worst that could happen? It transpired that Windows 10 had updated itself in my absence to a later version which didn’t recognise Sage. When I effected a system recovery, restoring an earlier version of Windows 10, Sage loaded with no problems. So I was quite proud of myself because I know very little about the anatomy of IT, just how to do what I do. Of course, that took most of the morning to resolve, so I was behind in the work. It was late afternoon before I got home. Bill had put jacket potatoes in the oven, which was good because I was out again at 5.30 to go to an MMU event at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation: a talk and poetry reading around the theme of the body and ‘selfies’. Dr Ann Burns gave a talk about the selfie, specifically the ‘duck-face selfie’ and its negative reaction on social media. This was the focus of her PhD—no really, you can get a PhD about ‘duck-face’! And it was fascinating stuff. Judgemental trolls attack women for posting selfies, apparently, a manifestation of women being only what men think they should be. I felt duty bound to flood social media with my own ‘duck-face’ selfies, even though I think they are ridiculous. Why shouldn’t women post duck faced pouts if that’s what moves them. Andrew Macmillan read his wonderful poetry: what an asset to the Writing School he is; and Nicholae Duffy gave a talk about Andy Warhol’s exhibition of ‘stillies’: full-face videos of people sitting and doing very little. It was a fantastic night. Hilary and I posted a ‘double duck-face’ on the MMU Writing School FB page while we waited for the tram at St Peter’s Square. Childish? I know. But also a valid and very intellectual reaction to the evening (insert smiley faced emoji).

On Thursday I had a Poets & Players lunchtime planning meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road. This is where we hold our poetry and music events through the year. The next one is this Saturday. If you can come, you will be very welcome: high quality music and poetry for free. Yes, FREE! So do come if you can. Details here: https://poetsandplayers.co We are slowly getting our year’s events together; some exciting stuff to come, so keep in touch with the website for news.

On Saturday it was the launch of the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Noble Dissent. This collaborative anthology was conceived in 2016 as a reaction to the election in that year of the Trump and the (in my opinion) disastrous vote to leave the EU. It is a wonderful collection, a celebration of ‘dissenters’ through history. Hilary and I both have poems in the anthology and we braved the Saddleworth snow to drive to Lancaster for the launch. The ‘minibeast from the east’ was doing its worst when we left home, but we were pleased that there was no snow beyond Oldham. There were a couple of light snow showers in Lancaster, but nothing (un)settling. We spent the whole day in the library soaking up the poetry day of the Lancaster Litfest. Readings from Rebecca Bilkau, Rhiannon Hooson, Kate Fox and Hannah Hodgson were my highlights. We only left the room to look for coffee during a break at lunchtime. We had taken an all-day picnic, so we didn’t have to search for food. Just a day of good poetry. Lovely.

The drive home wasn’t so pleasant as the drive there, though. The minibeast exposed its sting from Bolton onwards: blizzard conditions and drifting snow: and windscreen washers frozen over! So we were particularly pleased to reach home. Hilary did the driving and she was brilliant. If you’re thinking of swapping your car any time soon, I can recommend a Mazda: it handled beautifully in the snow even though it doesn’t have 4WD. It took us about an hour longer to get home than to get there, but we did get home. Bill had lit the fire and the slow-cooker casserole I’d prepared before I went was warm and delicious smelling. It was good to be home. I have no idea what the weather is doing at the moment because the windows are all blocked with blown snow. I am on the third floor of our house at the moment, so I’m guessing we’re not buried in a snow-drift; but you never know. I can hear the wind roaring. I can hear a hot brew calling me too. So here’s the poem I wrote on Monday, unedited, not yet redrafted, a poem in its raw, first draft state. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Perhaps I’ll post it again next week when I’ve worked on it some more.

Alternative Mothers #15

 Julia

 whenever I see—
a girl’s model police car with a red light on the roof
or colouring-in that seeps out of the lines
or a boy’s drawing of his mum with arms growing from her ears
or a story that ends then I woke up
or the misplaced apostrophe in Fish and Chip’s…

whenever I see—
odd socks with running shoes—one white one striped
or Adidas gym tights with a Reebok top
or white stilettos with thick black tights
or the wrong pocket in a dress from Pause a Second
or one blue button sewn among the right ones on a white blouse…

whenever I see—
a five leafed clover
or an albino hedgehog
or  snow turned mushy
or a green chrysanthemum
or a blackbird’s white tail feather
or an extra chromosome in a child’s make-up
or bottle-bottom lenses, hearing aids, a wheelchair…

I think of that Christmas and you
throwing away two dozen mince pies hot from the oven
because mincemeat juice has bubbled out
from the geometrically measured hole in your
precision-placed lids.

 

Rachel Davies
March 12th 2018

Best friends with Macbeth

On Monday evening, I went to the inaugural lecture, ‘Green Noise and Gravestones’, of Professor Jean Sprackland at Manchester Metropolitan University. There were lots of MMU/poet friends there supporting her. There were drinks and nibbles followed by Jean reading from her two new books, due to be published later this year: Green Noise, a collection of poetry, and These Silent Mansions, a collection of essays about graveyards. There was a wonderfully poetic essay about a slow-worm, with a fantastic, shimmering bronze photo, that she’d seen in a graveyard. I know about the slow-worm but I’ve never actually seen one. Jean writes beautifully about nature. One of my favourite poems of hers is ‘The Birkdale Nightingale’, a poem actually about the Natterjack toad. I heard a fantastic and memorable line from one of her new poems: ‘the strong life of the inert’. It was in a poem about her brother growing crystals, but it describes perfectly the objects I remember my mother by in some of my poems: spoons, churns, egg cleaning tools. Jean gave me permission to use the line, properly referenced obviously, in my thesis. It was a wonderful evening.

On Tuesday I was at my desk all day. I still hadn’t heard from Angelica about the writing I’d sent for feedback so I was reluctant to work any more on the thesis until I’d heard from her. I concentrated on the creative side of the work instead: my favourite aspect. I looked for the next poems I want to use in the thesis and did a fair amount of editing on them. Some were poems written specifically for anthologies, for instance ‘Like Penelope’, which I wrote for the Beautiful Dragons anthology Not a Drop inspired by the Ionian Sea. I took out the direct references to the Odyssey and placed it more squarely in the domestic: it was about my mother after all. I like editing poems I wrote some time ago: it’s a bit like a potter refining a piece of clay work, moulding and polishing it until it’s almost perfect. I also wrote a new poem, ‘Test Card’, about watching telly when we were kids and how Mum always fell asleep in front of the telly. Oh my, I am becoming my mother. I’m a part-time insomniac, but I always manage to doze when the telly’s on, even if it’s something I really want to see. I’ve taken to sky-plussing programmes I really want to watch these days, just so I don’t miss it. I’ll post the poem at the end of this blog: I don’t think it’s a poem that will earn its keep on its own, but it might fit into a collection or pamphlet.

On Wednesday it was my day at the Black Ladd. Although the snow has left most places on Saddleworth, apart from the lee of walls and shaded places, on Buckstones Road it is still piled high beside the road where the snow-ploughs left it; great banks of snow all grey and dirty and speckled with bits of tree that blew off in the high winds. Although snow is beautiful when it first falls in its soft whiteness, there is something really sad about dirty snow, as if it is totally uncared for and deserves a good bath and a new set of clothing. There is a saying up here that standing snow is ‘waiting for some more to join it’. I hope that isn’t true. I’m waiting for the heat wave we always get after a hard winter: always the optimist.

I had my feedback from Angelica while I was working at the Black Ladd. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for. She made it clear that she really liked my poems that I’d included, but didn’t understand why I’d made the thesis so autobiographical. It seemed like a new direction to her. I needed to use the poems to describe the mother-daughter relationship, in conjunction with the poetry of Hill and Petit and the work I’d already done on their poetry; but not to write it autobiographically. I was feeling thoroughly depressed when I went home, wondering where to go from here; wondering if I’d ever strike the right notes. How easily I fall into that ‘I’m worthless’ frame of mind. I felt like Macbeth: “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Dramatic, yes; but apposite. I have to finish this thing because I’ve come too far; although on Wednesday night I felt like ditching the whole idea. I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night worrying about it. I spent the entire night going over it in my mind, planning what I could retain and what get rid of: I never considered deleting, just cutting and saving the autobiographical bits to use possibly in an introduction. On Saturday I was back at my desk re-planning, taking myself out of the work, planning to write it from a non-autobiographical distance. If I ever get this thesis written to anyone’s satisfaction you will hear the cheer go up from Saddleworth; wherever you’re living in the world. I re-read Coventry Patmore’s ‘Angel in the House’ to get me back on track. I know, it’s awful. Virginia Woolf said that ‘Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer’ and I needed to get to know my victim!

On Tuesday the postal entries to the Poets & Players competition arrived at my door. Viv, a colleague on the committee, had been administering them. So on Tuesday afternoon I went out to buy brown paper and a thank you card for Pascale, and an ink cartridge to replace the one emptied by printing off hundreds of competition poems. On Thursday I wrapped all the poems in cling film against the damp weather and then parcelled them up in brown paper and Sellotape with the thank you card for Pascale. I tied the parcel with string; and I took them to Oldham Post Office to send them on their way to Pascale’s home in Cornwall. A woman in the car park started singing ‘A few of my favourite things’ when she saw my ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’. It cost less than I thought it would for the postage. This was just about two reams of paper altogether, so a heavy parcel. It cost just over £17; when I sent the poems to Paul Muldoon in New York a couple of years ago it cost £80+; so I was happy with £17. I heard from Pascale that the poems arrived safely on Friday; so if you entered, rest assured that your poem is probably being read by Pascale as we speak. Thank you for your entry and good luck.

Here’s the poem ‘Test Card’, that I wrote on Tuesday this week. Not the best poem I ever wrote, but it does what I want it to do for its place in the thesis. Although, obviously, it isn’t about me. It’s just a poem.

Test Card

ITV’s been a thing for three years
by the time Dad buys the television.
Suddenly the wireless is passé

and we’re watching George Dixon
evenin’ all; we’re rocking
with Pete Murray, high-kicking

with the Tillers, falling for
Digger Dawson, hearing the call
to nursing.

Sitting in your chair by the fire,
head cocked to catch the words,
you’re asleep before DSI Lockhart

has even buttoned his gabardine.
Head nodding, mouth ajar,
soft snoring. We’re keeping quiet.
It’s way past our bedtime.

 

Rachel Davies
March 2018

The Beast from the East and other stuff

This week has been all about the weather and the processing of Poets & Players poetry competition entries. On Sunday sons Richard and Michael left early for home, always sad to see them go. I got down to work after breakfast, processing and printing entries. By lunchtime I had them all up to date. I expected a tidal surge of entries on this, the last weekend before the deadline, but it didn’t really happen; just a steady trickle all day. On Monday I really did mean to go running, to pick up where I left off; but it was flurrying with snow when I got up and very, very cold. The Beast from the East was close enough for us to feel its cold breath. I know, I could have gone to run on the treadmill, but I didn’t, I’m a bad person. I made porridge and stayed in in the warm.

I redeemed myself somewhat by coming up to my study and working on the thesis. As all writers know, writing is a process of writing something, deleting it, starting again, deleting again. The product rarely matches our expectation of it. On Monday I read what I had written already, cut about half of it. Yes, I did say ‘cut’; not quite the same as ‘delete’ is it? I cut it and pasted it into a separate document of ‘out-takes’—in case I need it in the future. I worked on the half I had retained, polishing it, improving it—I hope. It’s slow progress when you take two steps forward and one step back: when will that ever get me to the finish line? I read through what I had left that I was happy with. Then I started with the usual on-board censorship: what if it isn’t what’s needed? What if I’m way off the mark? What if I get the 16000 words drafted to send to Antony in the summer and it isn’t at all what it should be? The British life position, I learned when I was an aspiring head-teacher, is ‘You’re alright, I’m not alright’, that everyone else knows exactly what they are doing and you are the only one in the dark. That is certainly my default setting: the product of an abusive grammar school education. I decided to send what I’ve written to Angelica to ask if it is worth pursuing. If it isn’t good enough, I’d rather know sooner than later. So I emailed it off when I finished work on Monday. I asked for minimal feedback, nothing too involved. I just need to know if it’s worth carrying on or if I need to change tack. I will hear from Angelica this week; so fingers crossed I can carry on.

My cat had run out of her prescription dental biscuits by Monday. I’m telling you this because on Monday afternoon we went to Tesco for cat food and we called at Briar Dawn Vets in Shaw on the way home to pick some biscuits up. This turned out to be a very good move. Because on Tuesday morning the Beast began to growl. It was snowing enough to need to dig out of the drive. Thankfully, the car I bought last April has four wheel drive, so a bit of snow is less of a challenge. On Tuesday morning there was about 2cm of snow when we got up. It didn’t keep me in: I had a hair appointment in Uppermill at 9.00 and I did get there. I parked on the main road when I got home.

I spent the morning processing entries to the competition: they were coming in a bit faster than the weekend, but I kept up to date with processing. In between doing that job, I read Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It recently won the T S Eliot prize, and has won the Forward Prize for best first collection and numerous other prestigious awards. Believe me, it was a worthy winner. I was blown away by his writing: innovative, moving, tender and frightening. Ocean was a refugee from the Vietnam war: they used to be referred to as ‘boat people’ because they risked their lives in unworthy craft to take the ocean way out:

Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

The collection is bejewelled with wonderful words, well worth all its many accolades.

Read it!

I was reading it in preparation for Stanza on Tuesday evening. We had to cancel. By teatime the Beast was outside our door, panting for blood. I consulted the group and consensus was to leave it for this month, so I rang the Buffet Bar and cancelled the room. It’s a shame, because I was really looking forward to discussing Ocean’s work; but now I have a whole month extra to keep reading. We have deferred the discussion until the next meeting at the end of March.

Wednesday was a joyous day because it was the last day of February. I hate February, it comes at the end of a long, cold winter and I am a summer bird. I was born in one of the hottest summers of the last century and summer is my natural home. If I could, I would hibernate from January to March. Snow defined the last day of February this year: in like a lamb, out like a lion this year: it can’t even get that right, can it? My day at the Black Ladd was cancelled: Amie had shut up shop due to the weather, so I stayed in and used my buckshee day to process more entries. They did indeed come in thick and fast all day. I had them all up to date one minute, the next minute another dozen or so to process. They were up to date by the time I stopped work for the day; by the midnight deadline I had another 180 poets to process. So thank you to everyone who entered: we really do appreciate it. Last year I remember having a bit of a rant on here about people who don’t follow the rules: this year was much better. A few poems over 40 lines, but on the whole the rules were observed and entries are now processed and printed, ready to send to Pascale Petit next week for the judging. I always feel inordinately excited to hear who has won. We should know by the end of March.

Outside, the Beast continued to growl. The snow fell thick and fast, the wind howled. Thursday was the climax: I use the term in the way you might discuss a fever. This was like a fever, raging and raging, slightly hallucinatory, no sign of breaking. Sitting by my fire, I could hear the Beast roaring outside, winds up to 50 mph, gusts up to 90 mph. Snow was being blown horizontally to the west: roofs were bare of snow even as it fell. I imagined Liverpool, the last bastion of civilization on the mainland, being buried under all the snow that was blowing west. And that wasn’t far from the truth. The M62, only a couple of miles north of here, was completely snow-blocked for two days. Hearing the weather raging outside, I felt as if I’d been beamed up to some inhospitable planet and would never get home again. The winds dropped slightly by Friday as the Beast slinked away. By Saturday we could risk the journey to Tesco to stock up on rations. No milk. No bread. Hardly any eggs. Sparse shelves, and people still panic/manic-buying as if their very existence depended on it. It doesn’t: get a grip. While most people were, like me, sitting it out in front of the fire, rough sleepers were still having to find refuge outside. Shopping always winds me up, but yesterday was an eye opener. One woman with a large shopping trolley mounded with a dozen or more bulging carrier bags; the man in front of us spending £203. Put some of the bread back you snapped up ‘just in case’; share the milk; and calm down, really, you won’t starve.

When I wasn’t being wound up by Tesco shoppers, I was working on the creative aspect of the PhD. I looked over some of my poems and did some editing. I also put together twelve ‘alternative mother’ poems to send out to a pamphlet call, deadline midnight on Monday. I immediately see where a poem can be so much better after I’ve sent it out into the world to earn its bread. Hey ho, that’s writing for you.

I’m posting a different poem this week, not a portfolio poem at all; but it does describe that default position of not quite cutting it, not being ‘alright’. Writers are expansive in their inspirations, but highly strung and anxious about their poems. We must have perfection we can never attain; it’s not enough to just be the best you can be. We should learn to let that suffice.

The Best Poem I Haven’t Written Yet

I’d bet everything I’ve got in my pocket
some loose change, a torn tissue
a humbug leaking from its wrapper
a Metrolink ticket, a till receipt
a smart phone, a notebook and pencil
an original thought, a stupid question,
a lifetime of memories, and ones I’ve forgotten
a straight or a slant rhyme,
a strong rhythm, five feet, an end-stop
or enjambments, caesuras, white space,
a study in form, some stanzas and images,
a world lingua franca

to find, balled with the fluff in its unexplored corners,
the last of my three wishes: that one poem…

Rachel Davies

The euphoria of ‘poemy brain’

Some weeks, life drives me, so the PhD has to ride in the back seat. This has been one of those weeks. Poetry has been all this week. I’ve dived into it, swum in it from Monday to Friday. My brain, as Hilda Sheehan recently remarked, is all poemy.

On Sunday Hilary and I were still at the Birmingham Verve festival. After breakfast we took the short walk from the hotel to Waterstones for a 10.00 a.m. workshop—‘writing the wild’—with Pascale Petit. I really enjoyed that: she kicked us off with a game of metaphors. We were given a folded paper with a noun on and we were asked to write a word or phrase that said something about it: for instance ‘a chrysalis—is a swaddled infant’. We tore off the phrase and passed it by the left, keeping the original noun; I received the phrase ‘is a six-footed tap dancer’. We read around with our original word and our new phrase. They didn’t all work well, but sometimes there was a gem that showed how approaching metaphor differently can give you a surprising line to kick-start a poem. After the two-hour workshop I asked Pascale to sign the poetry collections I had taken with me. She recognised my name as the author of the recent piece about Mama Amazonica published in The North, which was amazing: lovely to think she’d actually read it. Hilary and I went to Costa: a toasted tea-cake and coffee for lunch before being back at the desk at 3.00 for another workshop, led by the Dudley poet, Liz Berry. What a fantastic poet; what a lovely woman. Her workshop addressed writing tenderness without sentimentality. We brainstormed ‘tender’, read tender poems; my favourite was the Sharon Olds poem ‘Looking at Them Asleep’, a poem inspired by her sleeping children, which averts the danger of being even a bit sloppy.

There was just time for a cup of tea in the Waterstones café before going to the final reading of the festival: Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir and Liz Berry. Although only about five feet tall, Liz Berry was a poet head and shoulders above the other two readers–in my opinion. Her poetry uses Black Country dialect in surprising ways, and her delivery is mesmerising. I was shocked by her poems addressing post-natal depression. She is always such a pleasant, generous woman: it showed how mental illness can afflict us all. Nick Makoha read poems about internal political conflict in his native Uganda; and Nuar Alsadir, a scientist-poet, read from her book Fourth Person Singular. At the end of the evening, the conclusion to the festival, our heads were waterlogged with poetry. At 8.00 we went to eat in a local Thai restaurant; they asked us to leave at 9.00 because they were closing early. We weren’t told this when we booked the table. Have you tried bolting a Thai curry in double-quick time? All those red chillies–our poor alimentary canals!

Monday morning, after packing our suitcases and taking breakfast, we walked the short walk to the Cathedral to see the Burne Jones stained glass windows there. It was a grey, mizzly day, but even so, the colours were astounding. We joined a small group being guided by one of the Canons: apparently the artist was only paid £200 for the first commission: when it was done, he said the fee wasn’t enough. Until he came to the ‘inauguration’, or whatever you call it when a stained glass window is presented to the congregation. The sun was shining, and we when he saw his halos glowing in the light from the sun, he was bowled over and agreed to do three more for the same price. They are magnificent, and well worth calling in for a gleg if you’re ever in Birmingham.

The train journey to Manchester was uneventful, and we were home soon after three o’clock. What a wonderful festival Verve is: we’ll definitely subscribe next year.

On Tuesday I had planned to visit my grand-daughter in Telford, but the visit had to be called off at the last minute, so I had a day I didn’t know I had to do some pressing jobs on the poetry front. I spent the day processing entries for the Poets & Players competition. Deadline is Wednesday, only four more days to get your entries in: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2018-closing-date-28-february-2018/

I also prepared for the reading I was giving in York on Thursday: I sorted out my set of poems, practised reading them, timed myself for the fifteen minute slot.

 

IMG_1321
Joanne Stryka reading at York Explore

We travelled to York on Thursday afternoon for the reading at York Explore library, for the ‘Finding the Words’ event. How well organised was that. There were three readers: Hilary and me and Joanne Stryka, who recently launched her Cinnamon Press pamphlet After, which she read from on Thursday, a ‘heart-breaking account of the aftermath of a suicide’, that of her daughter, in which she manages to ‘sing the unsayable music of pain’ (Don McKay from the Cinnamon Press website). You can order the pamphlet from Cinnamon Press: https://www.cinnamonpress.com/index.php/hikashop-menu-for-products-listing/poetry/product/321-after-joanne-stryker

Hilary read poems from her recent MA portfolio; and I read several of my ‘alternative mother’ poems alongside other poems from my portfolio. Hil and I had hand-stitched a pamphlet of our previously published poems, and we sold eleven on the night. We both had lovely feedback from the audience, and Will Kemp, who is part of the organising of the event, took us all for a drink in the Lion and Lamb inn after the reading. It was such a good night and I was too poemed up to sleep after.

On Friday my son Michael came to visit after a horrendous journey on the M6—is there any other kind? We went to Amie’s for the evening: she cooked her delicious cheese and onion pie. On Saturday, Richard joined us for an overnighter. We went to the Black Ladd, Amie’s restaurant, for lunch on Saturday because Amie had to work and it was the only way Richard would get to see her. In the evening he and Mike went to Leeds to a Morrisey concert. I’ll be sad later today when they both go back to their real lives.

On Saturday I did some more work toward administering the P&P competition: did I tell you you only have until Wednesday to get your entries in? I brought the spreadsheet up to date, and printed off about half of the entries. Still a fair amount to do there then: and the entries usually come in thick and fast on these last few days. I also wrote another ‘alternative mother’ poem, so the PhD wasn’t entirely side-lined. This one was an ‘own back’ poem for someone my son used to be bullied by. Enough said.

And here we are, Sunday again. Have a good week.

I’m including my poem ‘Meg’, which was recently published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, to raise funds for the mental health charity Mind. You can buy a copy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Please-Hear-What-Not-Saying/dp/1984006649/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517601752&sr=1-2&keywords=please+hear+what+im+not+saying

The poem is inspired by a friend from my childhood who took her own life in the end. She was such a jolly, out-going person, fun to be around. You can never know the pain a person is feeling inside: how we mask what we’re really going through. Here’s ‘Meg’, a modern sonnet. The early lines are ten syllables in length to give it pace and rhythm, until the turn at line 9, when the syllabics are disrupted, as her life was..

Alternative Mother #4

 Meg

 Teach me to build a den down by the beck,
how to pond-dip water snails, sticklebacks;
teach me the kindling sticks to pick to build
a campfire, how to mount a stone surround
to keep me safe; teach me how to light it,
let it burn to embers before baking sour-
dough bread on willow sticks; teach me how
to live without the essentials: running water,

flushing toilet. You. Teach me how to forgive
a lover who doesn’t deserve me, how
to raise a family alone. But don’t teach me
how bleach can’t clean everything.
Don’t teach me how a bridge over the M1
is the only way out.

Rachel Davies
December 2018

Trains and Golden Shovels

It’s 6.00 a.m. and I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham. I’m here for the Verve Poetry Festival. It’s the end of a very good week. I’ve been so busy I haven’t even fitted in a run this week. I haven’t given up on the NY resolution though, just too much else going on.

On Sunday it was dog-sitting day again: a couple of long, snowy walks. By the time we went home at 9.00 p.m. there was much snow on Saddleworth roads and a hair-raising drive home. This was worrying because on Monday we were due to travel to Glasgow and it looked as if we might be snowed in. But there was no extra snow overnight and we were taken to the station in a 4×4 car, so apart from a short delay at Piccadilly we were OK. We were in Glasgow by 1.00 p.m. We went to the Museum of Modern Art, walked to George Square, where the striking ship-workers had raised the red flag in the early twenties and had afternoon tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, the décor designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The chairs are designed for aesthetics, but not so much for comfort:

Buchanan-Street-02

Yes, that is the tops of heads you can see: the chairs are very tall and double as screens to afford some privacy to customers. We had five hours in Glasgow, so only time for a taster; we are definitely up for a weekend break at some time in the future. I had bought first class tickets on the train for Bill’s birthday: it wasn’t a first-class journey. The heating failed in our carriage—it was ‘toasty warm’ in the other carriages apparently—and we rode home togged up in coats, hats, scarves and gloves!

On Tuesday I met Hilary for coffee. We discussed the hand-stitched pamphlets we’re preparing for our reading in York on Feb 22nd. In the afternoon I spent a couple of hours processing entries for the Poets & Players competition:
https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2018-closing-date-28-february-2018/ As you can see, there are still ten days to get your entries in, so what are you waiting for?

Tuesday evening, Hilary and I went to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester for ‘A Body of Words’, a talk/reading around food and the body. Kelsie Silverstone read some poems and talked about her fund-raising commitment to ‘Beat’, an eating disorder charity. She is planning a sponsored head-shave: if you would like to support Kelsie, her Just Giving page can be found through this link: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kelsie-silverstone
Dr Angelica Michelis gave a talk about “the relationship between eating/non-eating bodies and how food, its consumption, digestion and rejection tell us stories about desire, abjection, fear and pleasure, in short – stories about our selves/ourselves.” (ref IABF website). Malika Booker read her wonderful poetry, a modern Carribbean take on Bible stories. It was an interesting and thought provoking evening.

Wednesday daytime was taken up with the accounts at the Black Ladd. Of course, it was Valentines Day. I don’t subscribe, seeing it as yet another way for consumerism to put my money into the pockets of people who don’t need it as much as I do. However, we did go out to eat, prior to seeing the live screening of RSC’s Twelfth Night at the Odeon in Oldham. Oh my, it was good. Ade Edmondson played the pompous and down-fallen Malvolio. He was impressive; but my favourite performer was Beruce Khan playing Feste. If you get chance to see it, don’t miss it, either live in Stratford or live screened to a cinema near you.

Thursday was taken up with stuff that must be done before I could come away on Friday: ironing, packing, processing competition entries, printing poems for the judge, hand-stitching pamphlets: there aren’t enough hours in a day. On Friday, Hilary and I travelled to Birmingham for Verve. On Friday evening there were fantastic poetry readings by Mir Mahfuz Ali, Sasha Dugdale and Karen McCarthy Woolf. Very different poets, but all good. The evening was chaired very efficiently, and with humour, by Jo Bell. I bought, and got signed, Mahfuz Ali’s Midnight, Dhaka a very challenging collection of poetry remembering Bangladesh’s bloody independence from Pakistan in 1971. I was particularly interested by this collection, because when I was a primary school head-teacher—1993 to 2003—my school served the Bangladeshi community in Hyde. Of course, I knew the history; but the harrowing human element, the extreme suffering of that history, is addressed in this collection.

Saturday was a full-on day. We had breakfast at the hotel then took the fifteen minute walk to Waterstones for a day of poetry at the festival. It started with a poetry breakfast, which didn’t include a second breakfast, but it did involve poetry. It was an introduction to the weekend. I had to leave after half an hour because I had a workshop booked with Karen McCarthy Woolf. This was about form, especially little known poetry forms: who has heard of the ‘gramofand’ for instance? Not me. It’s a form that makes near-anagrams of the title of a poem in the end words of its lines—I think. There is an example in McCarthy Woolf’s first collection An Aviary of Small Birds. ‘Emotions’ plays with that title throughout the poem. But mostly we were exploring the ‘golden shovel’, a form where you take a striking line from a published poem and use the words of that line as end-words of the lines of your own poem. I’ve experimented with this form before, but we studied it in more detail yesterday. We even heard a wonderful recording of Gwendolyn Brooks reading ‘The Pool Players’, the short poem that inspired Terrance Hayes to invent the form in the first place: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55678/the-golden-shovel

I had an afternoon free after the workshop so I walked around The Bullring, a mass of humanity on a Saturday afternoon, then walked back to the hotel for a brew and a glass of wine in the bar before returning to Waterstones for the evening readings by Pascale Petit, Hannah Lowe and Sandeep Parmar. Pascale read from Mama Amazonica, which was a real treat for me; Hannah Lowe impressed: she is funny and entertaining and her poetry is brilliant. She reminded me a lot of Kim Moore. I bought her collection Chan, which she signed for me. Sandeep read from her collection Eidolon, a modern retelling of the Helen of Troy myth, questioning the patriarchal interpretations of history. The Q&A session after the readings was interesting. After a short break there was another event, the Out-Spoken Press showcase, with interesting readings by ‘performance’ poets. My favourite was Bridget Minamore’s reading from her collection Titanic, reliving the breakdown of a love affair. It wasn’t all broken hearts and teardrops though; it was funny and poignant and her delivery was thoroughly entertaining. I might buy her collection today. Carribean food was served during the interval as well, compliments of the festival organisers. Well, even poets need to eat. The vegetable curry was lovely. We were so buzzed-up by poetry that it was well after midnight before we were ready for sleep.

And here I am, awake at 6.00 a.m. writing all about it. You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned PhD once in this blog post. That’s because I haven’t been able to fit it in anywhere, except inside my head. It is a constant psychological presence, and the notes I took from last night’s Q&A session, particularly Pascale Petit’s responses, were all with that in mind. I promise it will feature more next week, by hook or crook.

Here’s a poem, a ‘golden shovel’ I wrote for Carrie Etter’s NaPoWriMo last April—she’s planning another event for this April if you’re a poet and you’re on Facebook and you fancy it. My ‘shovel’ takes that famous opening line from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Morning Song’ and uses the words of that line as the end words of the lines of my poem ‘Making Cakes’. After yesterday’s workshop, it would probably be a different poem, but it was my first ‘golden shovel’. I’ll try harder in future, I promise.

 

Making Cakes
after Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’

When I think of you baking, it’s about love—
the way you lay out your ingredients, set
out bowls and spoons before you begin. You
work in your own way, no recipe, say going
to a recipe book is a waste of time—shortcuts like
weighing eggs, then equal measures of butter, sugar, flour: a
perfect Victoria sponge, this is your way. Your cakes are fat
monuments to Demeter, spread with jam and that gold
impersonator, buttercream. I’ll just pull up a chair to watch.

 

Rachel Davies
April 2017

Birthdays and Bigotry

Life, PhD and poetry: that’s what this blog aims to explore, and this week all three have had a piece of me.

It was Bill’s birthday on Monday. On Sunday we went into Oldham to see ‘Darkest Hour’ and then went for a meal after the film. Gary Oldman was indeed wonderful as Churchill. The great man wasn’t a favourite of mine: too many disastrous political decisions in his career; but he was the man for the job when Great Britain lived under the Nazi threat. And oh my, the power of words. His speeches brought tears to my eyes. A film to see for sure; and we saw it in the very room where Churchill was first chosen to represent Oldham as an MP, back in 1900. The old Town Hall is now a multiscreen Odeon cinema.

I know, I said Bill’s birthday was on Monday and we celebrated on Sunday. That’s because Monday was taken up with ‘other stuff’. I saw him for about an hour in the morning and not again until 9.00 at night. I went out for my run on Monday morning; except I didn’t run. It was sleeting quite hard so I settled for the treadmill at the gym. But it took me half an hour to drive about four miles, still only half way to the gym. The traffic was awful for some reason: perhaps there had been an incident on the M62 or something. Anyway, I got to the roundabout in Shaw, about halfway to the gym, drove all the way around the roundabout and went home again; no running. Because I had to be at Amie’s for 10.00 for a morning’s dog-sitting. I spent the morning submitting some poems to various venues. After a long dog-walk up the fairly steep lane behind Amie’s house, I left at 12.30 to collect Hilary. We were meeting Polly Atkinson in Propertea in Manchester to plan a poetry break in May.

There used to be five of us planning these poetry breaks once; but two members of the group fell away for various reasons, so now just the three of us. We eventually agreed on a holiday cottage along the east coast between Filey and Scarborough. It’s booked. We are going in May, immediately after the Poets and Players competition celebration event: we didn’t want to miss Pascale Petit. One to look forward to, then, with close access to York, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay: there’s no end to the inspiration we can find.

After the planning meeting, Hilary and I went for afternoon tea at Patisserie Valerie to use the Groupon we couldn’t use a couple of weeks ago, then we walked to Chapter One Books in the Northern Quarter for The Group. There were six of us at The Group this week, with some wonderful writing to discuss. I took ‘Alysoun’, my alternative mother poem about the Wife of Bath. It was well received. There were some brilliant poems discussed; and a further instalment of the teacher meeting her teacher in a pub. It was a good evening discussing writing with very pleasant and like-minded people.

We took the tram home to Oldham. A homeless man approached us on the platform at Victoria and asked for some change for a cup of tea. We both gave him some. I didn’t expect thanks for this, but he was very grateful. He said mental health issues had caused him to lose his home and he just wanted to be warm: it was indeed a very cold night. What I also didn’t expect, from a woman who was also waiting for the tram, was a lecture on why we shouldn’t give to ‘them’ because ‘they all’ get together at the end of the day to share the takings and then go home to their comfortable houses. Patronisingly, she suggested we were targeted because we look like a soft touch, two grey-haired old ladies who daren’t say ‘no’. I think we were targeted because he could smell the prejudice of other people there, perhaps. I tried to engage her in a conversation about charity, but bigots are difficult to reason with. So I was silently seething on the tram. It was 9.00 before I got home, and I could at last celebrate Bill’s birthday with him. I took him the cakes we didn’t eat at our afternoon tea; and a bottle of Chablis to toast his unbelievable age! Oh, and did I tell you, I’ve booked train tickets to Glasgow for Monday; with afternoon tea in the Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street. The tea rooms were designed by one of his architect heroes, Charles Rennie Macintosh, so we’ll have Monday together, albeit a week late!

On Tuesday I was back at Amie’s for dog-sitting duties. Her partner, Angus, is in Canada on a snow-boarding holiday with brothers and friends; the dogs are missing him, so I’m helping out while Amie is at work. Oh my, they are gorgeous; and energetic. I took my work with me and had a productive day on the thesis. I have doubled the word count this week. I’m still not happy with it, but I’m working on it and that’s what matters. After a long dog-walk at lunchtime, I thought again about that woman at Victoria and I got my revenge in a poem. She became the latest ‘alternative mother’ in my sequence. That poem was very cathartic: I’ll post it at the end of this blog. That kind of prejudice needs calling out.

On Wednesday morning I did go out to run. It was a lovely, bright morning, and it was light enough to go out at 7.30. But, oh my, it was cold. It was -6*C on Saddleworth. I ran along the track of the Delph Donkey again. All the puddles had thick ice on them, so at least I didn’t get muddy. But I could have had dental surgery without anaesthetic: by the time I got back to my car my face was numb, my tongue was numb; and my chest was wheezy from breathing in the cold air. I am an historical sufferer of asthma: I haven’t needed an inhaler for years; I could have done with one on Wednesday morning. But I ran; and I ran two lots of 5 minutes and one 8 minute slot. When I think of that New Year run when I felt as if I was dying after running spurts of 1 minute, I can see how the stamina is building. It feels good, as if I’m achieving something I didn’t think I could do. On Friday I ran again, but on the treadmill this time. It was sleeting quite hard when I went out to run, and after the downpour for most of Thursday I didn’t think the Donkey track was a good idea. The good news is, I ran for two spurts of 8 minutes each. I surprise myself every time I go!

On Thursday, my copy of the ‘Mind’ anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying arrived in the post. It has some brilliant poems addressing mental health issues and is on sale to raise funds for mental health charities. You can get a copy here, if you would like to buy in order to contribute:

https://www.amazon.com/Please-Hear-What-Not-Saying/dp/1984006649/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517601752&sr=1-2&keywords=please+hear+what+im+not+saying

If you do buy, make sure you get the latest (2018) anthology though; there is also a 2011 copy of the same name on sale as well.

Saturday was another PhD day. I worked some more on the thesis on Saturday. I’m still not happy with it; I need to take time to really think out what it is I’m wanting to say; what point am I trying to make? At the moment it feels too much like a poetry review and not an academic piece; not academic enough, anyway. I’ll keep chipping away and eventually it will be what I want it to be. It’s a hard task-master, this PhD thing. Its whip is soft but relentless!

Anyway, here is the poem I wrote about the woman at Victoria. I hate bigotry in all its manifestations. She had a willing audience in another man who was on the periphery of the group waiting for the tram. He was agreeing with her, giving her permission to be a bigot, so she aired her views loud and clear. There was no reasoning with her; and I resent the assumption that because I have grey hair I need someone ‘sensible’ like her to warn me. What use is money unless you can do some good with it? Any one of us could be reduced to the need to ask for a brew; thankfully up to now, I haven’t had to: but I will be sympathetic to anyone who asks a cup of tea of me. Here’s my ‘own back’:

 

Alternative Mothers no. 13

That Woman Waiting For The Rochdale Tram At Victoria

The poor only have themselves to blame,
you say. Workshy. Scroungers.
It’s true, you say.
But what about the homeless, I ask.

They’re not homeless, you say, they’re immigrants
coming over here taking our jobs.
After Brexit there won’t be any immigrants

 you say. Farage and Johnson’ll send ‘em all home.
They’re good blokes, you say, they’re one of us.
I say, they’re not one of us, Ma, well
they’re not one of me. I say

Q: How do you know when a Leave campaigner’s lying,
A: Their lips are moving.
You don’t laugh.
You cuff my ear instead.

A homeless man on the platform tells me
he has mental health issues,
asks for the price of a brew—
he doesn’t read the tabloids Ma, I say, he wraps
his body in them to keep himself warm,
he wipes his arse on the Mail.

I just want to be warm, he says. I give him some cash
but you say all the Manchester ‘’homeless’’—
you actually manage to pronounce the quotation marks—
they all get together at the end of the day to share the takings
then go home to their comfortable houses.
You’ve seen them on the tram, going home, you say.

But what about charity, I ask.
Charity begins at home, you say.
But what if you’re homeless, I ask.
I start singing there’s a hole in my bucket.
You pick up today’s copy of the Daily Mail.

Rachel Davies
February 2018