Why do we get all this life…?

In the week I received into my inbox an email advert for Shirley Valentine, which is coming to the Lowry Theatre in mid-June next year. ‘Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it?” the advert asked? Good question, and definitely close to my philosophy for life. I have passed my last sixty-something birthday (in rather dramatic fashion) and I have a choice. I could dust off the sofa, watch Dom Littlewood on daytime television, eat rich tea biscuits with my weak cup of tea; or I could perform one last masochistic act and continue working toward a critical/creative PhD. Really, there is no contest. We are indeed given all this life, and it is increasingly precious as you get too old to take it for granted any more. But be damned if I’ll ever get too old to turn the telly off when Dom Littlewood comes on: I’ll never be that old!

So I’ve been reflecting on my first year as a PhD research student this week: how far have I come? A year ago I went to the university induction day for research students. It was exciting and terrifying, both. I came away from that event feeling as if this huge abyss had opened up in front of me and I had no way of seeing how I would ever negotiate a route to the other side. I had a vague impression of what I wanted to do toward my PhD, but, on reflection, no concrete idea; and certainly only a surface knowledge of the body of psychoanalytical thought I would need to be comfortable with in order to place the project in a theoretical framework. I had a better understanding of the poetry I wanted to read closely for the project; but not as deep an understanding as I’m going to need. I knew something of the poets, have even met two of them; but knowledge of the poets is not necessary: the poet is not the poetry; and it is the poetry I need to know inside out. So, a year ago I was, proverbially, up a creek without a paddle. This first year has been all about whittling oars.

And I have done a lot of whittling, on reflection. I have read more Sigmund Freud books than I knew existed this time last year. How hard it was when I started, trying to assimilate that theory to the educational and developmental psychology I learned as a teacher. But with each new book I read I built a body of knowledge, and a thirst for more books. I wrote a chapter on Freudian theory which won’t appear in the final work: it was really a letter to myself to show what I had learned; and that was a great deal. I moved on to Kleinian theory: possibly more relevant to my project of mother-daughter separation than Freud; and finally to Lacan. If I thought Freud was difficult, what about Lacan? He tantalises in his obscurity; but when the break in the cloud comes, oh my how revealing is that? So I have done a lot of theoretical reading in psychoanalysis. And in critical theory. Benjamin, Dinnerstein, Springnether, Chodorow: these were barely names to me a year ago; now I could have a fairly focused conversation about their ideas. I have written a chapter that has gone off to my team for discussion on Tuesday of this week. Still very much in first draft and wanting references etc., but I think it shows how far I have come in a year. And I haven’t even mentioned the progress in the creative side: the poems I have written and the thoughts about the verse drama that I am getting increasingly excited about. So, a year is a long time in academe: but I am a third of the way through my allotted time, and the ‘living shovel’ must keep digging.

This week the reading has continued apace: I’ve left the writing alone until I’ve had chance to discuss it with the team next week. I’ve been reading Jan Montefiore Feminism and Poetry. The title says it all. It’s about how women have been excluded from the canon, and the masculine tradition of poetry, for so long that they have needed to create a feminine tradition in which they can exist comfortably without the need to be derivative. Led by the second wave feminists of the sixties: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord etc, they began to carve out a space for themselves. Of course, it can’t be that simple or the book wouldn’t have needed writing: you could just go to Rich and Lorde for your theory. Montefiore points to the gaps in each theory and shows how women have, historically and in modern poetry, carved out their own space within the male tradition, by using male forms and subverting them, or making them fit the feminine/feminist genre of poetry. A good example from my past reading, which Montefiore doesn’t use of course, of a woman poet subverting the male canonical forms would be Wendy Cope, for instance; and my own hero, Selima Hill often writes in the male beat of iambic pentameters: she subverts the form by breaking the pentameters across two or more lines.  Hey, look at me, understanding what I’m reading: I have come a long way in a year.

In other news, this week has been big on poetry. On Tuesday I went to the Cathedral poetry competition winners’ gala event at Manchester Cathedral. Rachel Mann, Cathedral poet in residence, organised the event and what a treat it was. Michael Symmons Roberts was there to present a lecture on ‘daring the depths’ in our poetry writing: more difficult than it seems in the shallow place that is modern life. It was a fantastic and interesting lecture: I was stricken by the way he talks from inside his subject: it is a place he is comfortable in. I want to be in that place with my research, but still feel as if I’m on the outside looking in, like a child with her nose pressed up against the window of Smyth’s Toyshop. But I am getting there: someone is opening the door so I can smell the plastic, I’ve got a foot on the doormat. After the Symmons Roberts talk there was a reading by Jo Bell, who was the competition judge this year; and then the prize winners and highly commended poets read their work. It was a great set of poems, showing what talent for poetry there is ‘out there’. It was a lovely night: and to top it off, Michael Symmons Roberts confirmed he will be our Poets&Players competition judge next year, so I went home drugged up on poetry and couldn’t sleep afterwards.

On Wednesday my contributor’s copy of The Interpreter’s House came, with my poem ‘What I remember of the kitten was…’ in there. It is always a buzz as a writer to see my work in print and I never want that to be any other way. It is lovely to be in this journal alongside other poets I admire: Julia Webb, Rebecca Goss, Paul Stephenson, Roy Marshall. I feel privileged that my poem sits alongside the work of these poets. Buzz, buzz, it’s the buzz that keeps me writing, and keeps me awake at night! Wednesday evening Bill and I went to the live screening of RSC’s King Lear, with Anthony Sher in the title role. Oh my, wonderful. I was a bit sceptical about Sher at first: his quiet voice seemed to lack the authority of the Lear at the beginning of the play; but he was terrific, his descent into madness was brilliantly portrayed. I love these live screenings; The Tempest will be the next one in January next year. Roll on, I say.

Other poetry stuff this week: on Friday, it was the performance and masterclass of the ‘Make an Aria’ project, MMU poets working in collaboration with composers from RNCM and Music Theatre Wales. What a fantastic day that was, such a learning experience. I didn’t know what was required of us at the rehearsal in the afternoon, so I made sure I had a copy of my text for the aria on my iPad before I left home in the morning. I didn’t need it: Laura, my composer, had brought the score with the text included. Now, music is a foreign language to me, one I only learned the rudiments of at school, so it was absolutely fascinating to hear the mezzo-soprano and the composer discussing what was possible from a performance point of view. I did manage to keep my place in the score during the rehearsal, so that was an achievement in itself, although of course I was following the words of the text more often than the music. There were subtle but valuable modifications to the  piece by the end of the afternoon. I met Bill for an early evening meal in Manchester before we went back to RNCM for the performance in the evening. Now, in my own mind, the rehearsal in the afternoon had been the masterclass; how wrong I was! During the performance we were asked to say a few words to introduce the context of our arias; then, after the performance we were required to stand before the quite sizeable audience to answer questions on the work. Oh, my, they didn’t tell us that when we signed up. Michael Symmons Roberts, the MMU academic input into the project, and Stuart MacRae from Music Theatre Wales posed the questions and suggested possible improvements to the finished pieces. Thankfully, it wasn’t as gruelling as it could have been: both inquisitors were very sensitive and gentle in their questions. ‘Lilith’, the aria for which I wrote the text, sounded well in performance, if a little melodramatic. I had the best day of the week on Friday, the afternoon and evening sessions were productive learning curves and contributed to my thinking in terms of the verse drama I’m considering. Another day when sleep didn’t come easily: poetry is a real upper!

Last night we went to the Exchange Theatre for the Maxine Peak performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. We were sitting on the very top row, in the gods; when I told her, Amie was convinced I would fall off and end up in hospital again, but I managed to hold on, got home in one piece. The start of the play was a bit disconcerting, though. In establishing Deep South accents to their normally English speaking voices the actors lost the clarity of diction a little bit and it was difficult to hear the words. But the ear gets used to inflections and strangenesses very quickly. It improved as the play went on, and by the half time break I was hooked. The second half was stunning; and frightening; and very uncomfortable. How woman’s desire is viewed differently from man’s. How Blanche Dubois is vilified for her sexual desire where a man would be congratulated as a bit of a lad. How, in order for her to be sexually active, a man must have been complicit, but this point isn’t made. We have seen only too clearly the double standards regarding sexual predation in the news this week. Would she have been sectioned for her sexual appetites if her story had been written today? Or if her story had been written by a woman? Or if she had been a man? Or would it even have been a story to write today? But in the context of conservative 1950s America, it was an interesting play.

Speaking of conservative America, we watched the Clinton/Trump debate earlier in the week. Oh, my! What a piece of work is (that) man! Can an excuse for a man like him really become the most powerful man in the world with his finger on the nuclear button? Will America really let that happen? The world has gone mad if he is elected.  I’m against all forms of violence, but I would go as far as to say let the CIA find another Lee Harvey Oswald before he brings us all to the brink.

I managed to fit in some more gentle exercise this week as well: I went back to the gym for  more treadmill walking and I even tried a couple of lengths in the pool but that really tested the shoulders in the area where the fracture is. On Tuesday I walked along the canal from Uppermill to Grandpa Greene’s in Diggle for a cup of tea. It was a lovely walk, just over two miles each way; and the tea was nice although the weather was typical autumn Saddleworth: mizzly moor-grime, that annoyingly wet rain. But the walk set me up for some in-depth reading when I got home. It’s good to know, and to have reinforced every day, the fact that I am getting over the summer trauma and bringing myself back to the woman I know and love. And by the way, my little car passed its MOT this week, so that’s me mobile for another year.

The life I have been given is indeed good; and very well used.

2 thoughts on “Why do we get all this life…?

  1. Rachel, your capacity for packing all this into a week puts me to shame (I must confess to having watched rather too much TV, lately). I love those poetry highs – they’re better than any prescribed drugs, I reckon!

  2. you’re not wrong Jayne! Poetry is the drug of choice, for sure! BTW I came across another two packs of Tramadol that I’d squirrelled away in my bedside cabinet and forgot about. I haven’t taken Tramadol for about four weeks now, so I’ll have to save them for some undefined future eventuality. Meanwhile, poetry will do just fine!

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