Monthly Archives: November 2015

Osmosis, Periodic Tables and other science

What a week full of poetry and other stuff this has been.

On Monday I went with some poet friends to see ‘Lady in the Van’, the film of Alan Bennett’s book. I won’t say too much about it as you might not have seen it yet. If you haven’t, do. It was wonderful, deserving of several Oscar nominations. We laughed and cried, but mostly laughed. Being women of a certain age, we all aspire to be like Miss Shepherd.

On Tuesday it was breast screening. Not my favourite event this week, being clamped in a machine by my mammaries, it always reminds me of that scene in ‘Dances With Wolves’ where Costner has his nipples stapled to a tree and has to get himself free. If Thomas Cromwell had thought of breast screening, Tudor women would have told him everything they knew.

Thankfully in the evening it was East Manchester and Tameside Stanza, our monthly meeting at the Staybridge Station Buffet Bar. We were concentrating on writing this month, three of our members brought writing activities and we spent the session writing to those activities. I particularly enjoyed the one based in dramatic monologue, must have been the Bennett influence. Anyway, we always make time to read back and feedback and there were some very healthy embryonic poems produced in those two hours.

On Friday I met up with two friends who did the Creative Writing MA at the same time as me at MMU’s writing school. We started the course together in 2007, members of a very small and select group of poets. We have been in touch ever since. We met at the old Cornerhouse, which is now called Home. Unfortunately I went to the wrong place, thinking we were meeting in the old Cornerhouse on Oxford Road. I spent fifteen minutes looking for them, communicating by text before we all realised I was in the wrong building. Luckily the ‘right’ building was only a five minute walk away. Big sweaty hugs all round when I eventually found them! One of the two is also working on a PhD, she started about three years ago. I mentioned that I was reading about psychoanalysis, joked (sort of joked, not entirely joked) that I even understood 5% of it. In that wonderful way that poets have, she offered to sit down and talk me through it to cement my thoughts. Her background is in philosophy and theology, so she is much more ‘academic’ than I am. We will meet up in the New Year for a chat.

I spent a couple of hours in MMU library after that lovely lunch. I did a bit of reading, returned some books, played a couple of games on my iPad (you’re not really a student if you don’t prevaricate!) At 5.00 I had to be at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, about a ten minute walk from the library, for the launch of an anthology I have a poem in. The anthology is called ‘My Dear Watson’ on account of it being inspired by the periodic table (think about it: elementary?). The anthology is published by Beautiful Dragons Press and is the brainchild of Rebecca Bilkau, who worked incredibly hard to bring the project together. The poets were sourced entirely from Facebook, so it is refreshing to see social media being used for something so creative. There are 118 poets in the anthology, each writing a poem inspired by one of the 188 elements. My element was phosphorous. Here is my poem, relating to the form of necrosis that many workers with phosphorous suffered before employment legislation made it a less dangerous occupation:

Phossy Jaw

 I read somewhere that alchemist Hennig Brand,

whilst distilling his own urine, found that flashy,

unstable, prima donna of elements, phosphorous,

named it after an ancient love goddess. As a virgin

she’s dull as a dead planet. Mated with oxygen,

she burns bright as the morning star.


But ask the Bryant and May match girls

about her skills as lover. They spent their lives

dipping thin sticks into her lips, tasted her kiss,

shackled themselves to a heartbreaker and they

would have told you, had the phrase been current,

give her an inch and she’ll snog your face off.


It was a lovely event and I met lots of old poet friends. That is to say old friends who are poets, it wasn’t a comment on their ages! The other two poets who also began the MA with me were  at the reading, so it was a lovely meet up; and other members of the Poets and Players committee: it was good to see them as poets, rather than organisers, and to hear them read. It was a lovely evening, about forty poets got to read their work, again thanks to Rebecca’s organisation. After the launch of our anthology there was a performance from ‘Reforging the Sampo’: again, if you get a chance to see it, do. I heard good things about it after it was performed in Huddersfield and I wasn’t disappointed.

The weekend saw me grappling with psychoanalysis again, reading Forrester ‘The Seductions of Psychoanalysis’. I was concentrating on the work of Lacan, which I barely understand at all; and Derrida, who I  begin to feel I am getting to know, so either my brain is soaking it in by a process of osmosis, or I don’t really understand it at all and my unconscious is trying to make me feel better. Time will tell. Anyway, I am in the process of making a spreadsheet with the various aspects of psychoanalytic theory heading the columns and the names of the various psychoanalytic theorists heading the rows. My plan is to see who agrees with or differs from whom. Wish me luck.

By the way, I haven’t heard back from my Director of Studies re RD1, so I’m hoping it is reasonably acceptable and will only need, at best, minor tweeking. I was always a glass half full sort of a girl.



On elephants and Gannt Charts

Last weekend I was in Aldeburgh for the poetry festival. I met up with lots of favourite poets: Kei Miller, Helen Mort, John Burnside. I also discovered some poets I’d not met before but who will become future favourites I think: Choman Hardi and Paul Hoagland who read on the last afternoon of the festival.  Choman Hardi is a Kurdish poet who has written a collection from first hand reports of the Kurdish massacre in Iraq in the eighties. A stunning and very moving piece of writing: if you don’t know her work, check it out. Hoagland is American, political, cynical and funny. More books to buy then.

I made the five hour drive home on Monday and since then my week has been completely out of sync. I got up on Tuesday thinking it was Monday, nearly missed a hair appointment, realised just in time. Then on Thursday I missed a breast screening appointment, thinking I was on Wednesday (to be fair that was probably a Freudian slip, I hate having my breasts squeezed in a vice!). So all week I seem to have been running to catch up. Until yesterday. Yesterday I thought it was Sunday all day. i think I must have been ‘running to catch up’ too fast and passed myself somewhere on Friday!

Friday. What a dreadful day. I’m not going to dwell on the Paris attacks here, but that and the attack on Beirut on Thursday do put life into perspective somewhat. At times like these you have to remind yourself that the good in the world does indeed outweigh the bad.

So here I am, reporting on week three of the blog and RD1 is still the elephant in the room. I have worked on it, ticked all the boxes with an assumed confidence I don’t feel, and a little help from my friends. It asks if I have prepared a Gannt Chart. I didn’t even know what a Gannt Chart was until I googled it and checked out the video on the MMU website on how to set one up. Apparently, and you may know this already, a Gannt Chart is a spreadsheet of timeline planning for your project. To be honest, the video wasn’t much help to me on two counts. First, the voice-over had a strong Spanish accent that I found difficult to follow; and second, the version of Excel on the video is not the same version as mine. However, there is a website, that enables you to set up a Gannt Chart for free. As with most of these websites, the free bit is wonderful but if you want extras you have to pay. Unfortunately, the ability to print the chart is an extra, as is saving it to my computer, it has to be cloud-saved online. So I won’t be able to attach it to the RD1 submission, but at least I have one, albeit very rudimentary at this stage. it can be added to and given more detail as my workload progresses.

I have also edited my 1000 word abstract for the project so that is about ready to send off, but in a ‘first draft’ format until I’ve discussed it with my supervisory team. So I’m thinking that old elephant will be out of my study and on someone else’s desk by next weekend. Then I can begin work in earnest in line with my new Gannt Chart. Or put another way, then the real pain can begin.

On top of all this, lots of reading has been happening, still quite broad and unfocussed, but it is giving me a good idea of where I need to go. Greek myths and psychoanalysis: a heady aperitif to a main course of literary criticism and poetry reading/writing. Bring on the pudding.

A morbid fear of form filling

I’m writing this in Aldeburgh. I’m here for the poetry festival with four very good friends. I am meeting up with lots of other friends I have made through the poetry community since I retired, a community I didn’t even know existed a dozen years ago. So this weekend I have met up with poet friends from Cornwall, Cumbria, Leicester, York, Sheffield as well as lots of friends from my own locality, Manchester and Cheshire. It’s been great, indulging in my drug of choice, poetry, with like-minded people.

Pass the stanza by the left-hand side!

I have listened to some wonderful and some way-out poets from France, USA, Jamaica, Barbados, Scotland, Ireland and England, all on the same legal high, all reinforcing why I love poetry and its diversity.

What bothered me most when I was considering undertaking a PhD was that something in my life would have to go to make room for it. But if I give up any of those parts of my life that involve poetry, isn’t that somewhat defeating the object? I want to do this because I love poetry. If I have to give up even a small part of the poetry that is a major part of my life, what’s the point? And anyway, some things don’t bear thinking about. Once you have tasted that poetry buzz there’s no living without it. So, PhD, you’ll just have to learn to fit in, find your own space. This weekend it has been doing just that.

Since last Sunday, my life has been mostly about reading: Robert Graves, ‘The Greek Myths’, considering how parenthood myths informed Freudian psychoanalysis. Alongside that I have been reading Janet Sayers, ‘Mothering Psychoanalysis’, outlining the work of post-Freudian feminist psychoanalysts Helene Deutsche, Karen Horney, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. Fascinating and interesting stuff, it is the breadth of reading I need at the moment until I show myself what exactly I should be focussing on for my research. Currently my reading is all about informing RD1, the project registration form. These books have come to Aldeburgh with me as my bedtime reading.

Speaking of RD1, I had a go at completing that this week too. I have an innate fear of form filling: I always feel as if lying is my default position and someone is going to catch me out doing it. So I read into every question an ambiguity that probably isn’t there. To accompany the RD1 there are ethics and insurance checklists to complete. As far as I can tell, they are heavily geared towards medical research so most of my answers are in the ‘no’ column. I know my research isn’t going to interfere with contraception or involve genetic engineering, for instance. I swear these are specific questions and I can envisage scenarios in health care etc. where they would be highly relevant. But not in my particular piece of literary research.

However, there is one question about the use of secondary sources, for instance websites, that has me floored. Who does anything these days without recourse to websites? And if I answer ‘yes’ to this question, will my application have to be referred to the ethics committee for approval? And what if I don’t get approval? And will I be flogged at the cart’s tail until I be bloody if I answer ‘no’ and then Google stuff further down the line and click on web-links? And how can I be doing grown-up research if I can’t even make a decision about how to answer this one simple question? And how can one little question generate so many subsidiary questions that I can’t answer either?

And this brings me back neatly to that community of poets I mentioned at the beginning. Another poet friend is also doing a PhD at MMU, we started at the same time, although quite independently of each other. I emailed him to ask his advice. Has he completed RD1 and how did he answer this ‘secondary sources’ question? Does Google and Wiki count, does he think, or am I reading too much into a simple question?

RD1 is a hoop that must be jumped through. But, just in case, is Proformaphobia a legitimate defence in law, do you suppose?

Working Towards a PhD

In October, I enrolled at Manchester Metropolitan University to begin work towards a PhD in poetry. Of course, in reality, the work towards it began about eighteen months ago when I sought advice from a member of staff at the university and put together the initial proposal to accompany my application.

So why, at 68 years of age, do I want to begin a PhD? That is a question I have asked myself several times, not least as I sat on the toilet on the morning of the faculty induction day early in October. “Why are you putting yourself through this?’ I asked myself. After all, I am a retired headteacher, have quite a comfortable life, enhanced by a love of and involvement in poetry. I run a Poetry Society Stanza and am on the organising committee of one of Manchester’s most highly valued poetry performance events, Poets and Players. I enjoy the company of lots of like-minded poet friends. Why can’t I be content with life as it is instead of complicating it with another intense three years of study?

The answer to that question probably lies in psychoanalysis! At sixteen I left my grammar school with the harsh words of the headmaster ringing in my ears, that I would ‘end up in the gutter’ for the unforgivable sin of talking to a secondary modern school boy. I seem to have spent my life repudiating that remark, having trained as a mature student to become a teacher, acquiring two bachelor and two post-graduate degrees in the process. Now it seems to me that my climb out of the gutter of my life (I jest) won’t be complete without the ultimate achievement of PhD. Perhaps then I can relax and ‘be retired’. The thing is, if I don’t do it now, I never will. I’m doing it full time in three years (the first time in my life I’ve been a full-time student!) and I’ll be 71 at least before I finish. That’s late enough for anyone. I tell myself I don’t mind if I try and fail but not trying will be a betrayal to myself. Of course, in reality I’ll be devastated if I fail.

So, here I am packing my bag for Uni, reading Freud and the Greek Myths, reading feminist reaction to phallocentric Freudian theory and relating that to the reading of my poetry heroines, Sylvia Plath, Selima Hill and Jackie Kay, among others.

I have been to the faculty induction day and learned about various library facilities that didn’t even exist last time I studied anything; and that was only five years ago when I completed a creative writing MA at MMU. I learned about several research skills mini-courses that I should undertake to enable me as a researcher; I was scared witless by talk of ethics and critical reading and public engagement and presenting to conferences even though I have been considering these things all my professional life. In short, I watched as a great chasm opened up in front of me and I realised I have just three years to negotiate a way to the other side.

First hurdle: the infamous form RD1: the formal proposal that you have to register with the university in order to be  accepted on the PhD course. This involves personal information including details of the research skills courses undertaken and a 1000 word abstract of the research study you will undertake. I have to have this first -drafted and with my supervision team by the end of November prior to a meeting to discuss and submit. I met my team for the first time in October, although I knew Jean Sprackland, who supervised my MA creative portfolio and who encouraged me to do the PhD; and I met Angelica Michelis who was a wonderful help to me when I was putting together my application. Antony Rowland was new to me. He is my Director of Studies (DOS) and seems a very helpful and supportive member of the team. So I think I am blessed. After the meeting I completed an RD9 form, a record of the meeting and it’s outcomes. There are lots of bureaucratic forms to know about at these early stages even if you don’t need most of them.

Yesterday I attended the compulsory University Induction Day, which was different from the non-compulsory faculty induction. I received a very nice cotton bag with a file containing PowerPoint printouts of the day’s presentations and another file, my Personal Development Portfolio which I must keep up to date and take along to annual review meetings. Of course, many of the younger members of the research community are seeing this as a career opportunity. I don’t want a career in Academe; I just want a PhD. I’m not even particularly doing it for anyone else, although anyone who wants to can read it. Ultimately I am doing it for myself, just prove to myself that I can.

I intend to keep a weekly blog of my experience of undertaking a PhD. It will be a good record for me, if nothing else. And it might just help someone else who is contemplating their own chasm. Wish me luck, and drop by now and then to see how I’m doing.

I so want to do this PhD. And the Tudor cap and gown that goes with it is really rather fetching, after all.