Sun, sea and sangria and work

I’m writing this from sunny Santandria in Minorca. Yes, I’m on holiday again; and as usual, I have brought my work away with me. This has been a week of poetry and PhD annual review.

Monday was the deadline date for our ‘Make an Aria’ project, in which I worked with a composer from RNCM to plan an operetta scenario around the theme of ‘immigration’ and to write one aria, placed somewhere in the scenario. We decided to write to the theme of sexual exploitation in immigration, loosely planned an operetta ‘Lilith’ and wrote our aria towards the end of our scenario, which we left unresolved. Our aria is a sad and distressing song of Lilith’s exploitation at  the hands of someone she considered a friend. I wrote the text, handed it over to my composer, Laura, to set it to music. This Monday was the deadline for submitting it to the RNCM staff who organised the project in collaboration with Music Theatre Wales. We were one of seven or eight pairs of poets/composers involved in the project and our arias will be performed at RNCM in October.

Monday was also the day for the first year annual review of progress in my PhD work. I met with Michael Symmons Roberts at Manchester Metropolitan University to discuss my own report of progress and the report submitted by my Director of Studies. The review went well. Michael raised a concern that I may be setting my parameters too wide by looking at the work of four women poets and suggested I limit this to two, using the other two as ‘background noise’. I agree with him. He suggested I concentrate on Jackie Kay and Selima Hill, both of whom have been less analysed than Plath and Bishop, and that sounds good advice in the light of the need for ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ that PhD requires.

Michael asked about the creative aspect of the research: he was concerned about my posting an early draft poem on my blog every week, wondered if that was a good idea given the need to show proof of publication at the final assessment. I explained that this was a means to get me writing poetry for the project on a regular basis as I had been concerned that the critical side was taking priority, the creative side very much in the back seat. He was concerned that any feedback I receive on the poems might be considered as influencing the ‘original work of the poet’ aspect; but poems are often workshopped before publication, so I thought this was less of a concern. He advised perhaps giving myself a time lag between early draft and more polished poem, say a month from first draft, to post a more complete poem.I know publication on the blog excludes them from entry into competitions, but I suppose I always considered the poems as being part of a pamphlet or small collection rather than individual publications, so that makes a difference to the publication restrictions too. I have had two of the poems published individually so far though, one of which was written as a commission for an anthology; I did ask the editor’s permission to place that on the blog and permission was granted as long as I promised to acknowledge the anthology and the publishing house, which I did. Really, publication is a tightrope walk, isn’t it?

Michael was also concerned that I might be taking too much time from PhD work to keep up the blog but I reassured him that I normally write it at 4.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, having prepared notes the previous evening; that it really wasn’t taking any PhD time at all. He was happy with that, and I do think my blog postings will prove useful when I am writing the review of the creative aspect of my PhD work later on. The last issue we discussed in detail was the possibility of my writing a verse drama around the mother-daughter theme as part of, or even as, the portfolio. This idea came from a conversation with Billy Letford last week at the poetry carousel. He asked us what our poetry fantasy would be, and I said to write a modern verse drama that would be performed in a significant space. At the time it was just that, a fantasy, but the more I thought about it over the weekend, the more it seemed to be an idea worth investigating for the PhD project. Now, Michael is no slouch where verse drama is concerned, as anyone who knows his work will appreciate, so I felt I was getting the best advice available on this. He said in principle it wouldn’t be a problem because it would be poetry; but reminded me that it would also need all the necessary elements of drama: characterisation, conflict, resolution etc. It’s an idea I am considering at the moment, very much in the early stages; but I will discuss it again with Jean Sprackland in the autumn when we meet to discuss some of my portfolio poems.

So, the annual review went well overall, and I am able now to enrol for Year 2. If it’s true there’s no rest for the wicked, I must have done some truly evil things in my life! The rest of Monday was spent picking up Euros for our holiday in Minorca; and buying swimsuits that wouldn’t irritate the sore back: most of my existing swimwear ends just where the back is most sore. How expensive is swimwear? No change out of £100 for three!

On Tuesday I had a less full-on day of poetry with our monthly Spelks meeting. I think I may have mentioned once or twice in passing how much I love Spelks? This is my favourite group: seven poet friends who meet regularly to share poetry, eat food and drink wine. This week we met at Polly’s house and the hospitality was wonderful. The poems this time were written to a prompt from Penny. We read and reread Alice Oswald’s poem ‘Body’ from her latest collection Falling Awake. This is a poem about the exact moment of a badger’s death: amazing poem with some exciting and memorable images. We were asked to write three poems: one an instinctual response to the poem; two, to take a line from the Oswald poem and make that the title of a poem of our own; three, to take a line from our own poem and make that the title of a third poem. I wrote the first poem in Grange at the carousel last week, but couldn’t write the other two, didn’t know where they were going to come from; until Sunday morning when both poems arrived in quick succession, almost as complete articles needing little redrafting. That doesn’t happen often; and both are written to the theme of my PhD project, so how good is that?

The rest of the week was spent preparing for the holiday: doing ironing ready for packing, which is a huge challenge with a fractured spine. Bill would willingly do my ironing for me, but I’m a bit OCD and I know he wouldn’t do it to my liking and I don’t want to be ungrateful so  I just prefer to do it myself!  Then the actual packing, which I always leave to last minute. I keep a ‘holiday list’ on my iPad Notes, so that helps no end: I edit it depending on where I’m holidaying. So, Thursday evening saw me throwing my bits into a suitcase ready for a 2.00 a.m. start to the airport. Apart from a quick heart-stopping panic when I lost my boarding card in Security, the journey to Santandria went without hitch, and I am soaking up the rays, and not a little sangria, while having work constantly on my mind. I packed three books that need reading, and my Kindle which has at least three more relevant books; also my MacBook: I intend to press on with the writing before breakfast every day, when I get in my stride. So what is a holiday apart from being able to do what you want? And what I want most of all is to finish this PhD! (insert smiley face emoji)

That’s it then: another good week that has left me feeling very positive and determined. It is hard work but, as Aunt Mary used to say, ‘I love hard work, I could watch it all day.’ Except watching isn’t enough, Rach, get on with it, get it done!

I will post one of my Spelk poems this week, but I will give Michael’s advice serious consideration in future, so it might be the last poem for a while. The poem I am posting is the third poem in the sequence of tasks: I took a line from my second Spelk poem and used it as the title of this poem, ‘The Path To Her Grave’. It is a poem that seems to sum up my mother’s life as a home-maker and housewife in mid twentieth century England. Those early romantic notions that came with meeting the handsome farm labourer she fell in love with, and her subsequent marriage to him, were soon dispelled as she worked hard without pay, brought up seven children in harsh conditions, cooked, clothed, laundered and sometimes laboured on the farm too. Hard times, reflected I think in this poem. No wonder I rarely remember her smiling, bless her. At Spelks, Rod pointed out how the final, longer lines could be sung to ‘These are a few of my favourite things’ and I can’t read it now without bursting into song! So thanks for nothing, Rod.


The Path To Her Grave

these were her way markers:

the dreams she woke up from

and romance that failed her

and promises forgotten

and ambition deflated

and potential unrealised

and success unrecorded

and sunshine in his laughter

and life in his shadow

and brooms hoes and mangles

and knitting and nappies and billowing bedclothes

and hogweed and nettles and bouquets of thistles

and vipers and tigers and soul-eating maggots

and give me and give me and give me and give


Rachel Davies

August 2016