I started this blog to reflect on how a PhD would fit into an already busy life. I was worried I would have to give up stuff I love in order to make room for it. Since I started fifteen months ago, I have had to deal with ligament damage to my foot, and all the physiotherapy that entailed, plus a fractured spine that kept me away from my desk for several weeks; I had a bad case of norovirus in the spring and several holidays and poetry short breaks; I have continued being involved in all the poetry events I ever was, plus I have fitted in two poetry festivals in the year. And I’m still here, still keeping up with all the work a PhD requires. So I am really pleased this week because ‘PhD’ and ‘Poetry’ have been one and the same thing. This week I started writing my verse drama. Oh how good it feels to be doing the front crawl in creative writing instead of doggy paddling in the depths of the critical.
I think it helped that I cleared my desk on Sunday. I had lots of half drafted poems, left-over poems from poetry groups, print-outs of chapters that had been read, marked for editing and left on the desk. I had a shred-fest, emptied my office recycling baskets, generally cleared my workspace. It felt good, ready for productivity. I spent the rest of Sunday planning the verse drama, deciding what the dramatic arc would look like, what characters would be needed, what the characters would be like, speak like, what each scene would contain. Of course, like all the best plans, it’s open to change as it goes along, but I find it helps to have an outline.
Monday was all about creative thinking. My brain was somewhere else, mentally chewing away at the drama. I did the ironing: always a good way to spend time thinking my own thoughts. I rarely have telly or music on when I’m ironing; and I had a lot of thinking to do on Monday. For the first time since my fall in July, I got the ironing up to date: I’ve only been able to do about five items before my back was too sore to continue. But thinking is anaesthetic, and I emptied the basket on Monday. Admittedly I didn’t iron bed linen, gym gear, some of my jumpers: I folded them carefully and put them away un-ironed. But the rest is done. I needed the comfort of my hot water bottle after, but this is another milestone on the road to complete recovery. On Monday afternoon we decided to forgo our usual session at the gym and opted instead for a gentle stroll along the canal from Uppermill to Grandpa Greene’s at Diggle (more creative thinking time while I walked). It was a lovely wintry afternoon: cold and crisp with clear blue sky. The canal was like a mirror, with wonderful reflections of the sky, late autumn trees and walkers on the opposite towpath:
Tuesday was the day I started to write. I realised I didn’t have to write the drama in chronological order as it will appear in the finished piece, I could write a scene at a time, especially the stand-alone scenes involving the one appearance of a character, for instance the doctor or the coroner’s assistant. So I chose two of these scenes to work on on Tuesday to get me going. Making a start is often the hardest thing. Once you begin to invent characters, the continuing development of them is easier. So I made a start. By the end of Tuesday I had two scenes to share with Jean Sprackland when we meet this week. I had to force myself to remember it is a ‘verse drama’ and not just a ‘drama’ that I am writing; that it has to be poetry as well as a play. These two scenes are probably the furthest away from poetry of anything else I will write in it; but I revisited and revisited to draft the poetry in despite this: nothing rhyming, but rhythm and sound. I was quite pleased with them by the end of Tuesday. Yesterday I added a third scene, a confrontation between mother and daughter which enabled the ‘verse’ element free rein. Another scene to share with Jean; and I have had the most incredible idea about the finished piece, which I won’t share with you here but I’ll discuss with her on Tuesday: I’ll keep my powder dry until it’s needed for firing.
So, a good, productive week on the PhD front. I love it when it revolves around poetry. Poetry figured large in other aspects of life as well this week. Tuesday evening was our monthly East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting. We meet at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar on the last Tuesday of the month, 7.30 to 9.30–just in case you live close by and fancy dropping in. Now I’ve said that I’d better tell you we won’t be meeting in December as there’s a clash with Christmas, our next meeting will be on January 31st. Details here:
Anyway, this week we read and discussed Charlotte Gann’s poetry collection Noir (Happenstance Press). If you haven’t read it yet, really you should. It is mysterious and unsettling poetry. We were never sure what point (if any) she was making, but oh, my it is a book you can’t put down if you’re a poetry fan. Fascinating and troubling. We all agreed we loved it.
In between all this, the Spelks are putting together a pamphlet of our poems. When we read at various events, we are asked if we have books to sell. We are all published poets, but in a variety of journals, magazines and anthologies, but we don’t have a collection to call our own. So we decided we should produce one. Keith Lander (IT expert on the team) prepared the submitted poems in A5 format, including poet biogs and contents page. We will all print out a few copies and then Hilary Robinson and I will apply the covers–plain brown paper with a title only–and hand sew them in proper book-binding fashion. We have a few completed already and they look stylish. The poetry’s not bad either. We plan to have them ready for our next event, ‘Spelks meet Sounds of the Engine House’, an evening of poetry and music at St. Werburgh’s Church, Chorlton on December 10th. It would be lovely to see you there; and even better if you bought one of our lovely pamphlets! Details here:
On Wednesday evening we went into Manchester again. We had afternoon tea in M&S then did the Christmas markets. We had gluhwein in St Anne’s Square to warm us up then visited the stalls en route to the Opera House. I bought a lovely fat, purple felted elephant for a friend’s Christmas present, but don’t tell her. We went to the Opera House for the second half of my birthday present from my son, Richard: Much Ado About Nothing. Oh my, how good was that? Even better than Love’s Labour’s Lost I think. We sat in the second row of the circle again, and no-one was in the front row, so we had a brilliant view. I got chatting with the woman in the next seat. Her husband was doing a crossword puzzle as we waited for curtain-up, and during the interval. He was stuck on a clue; something about buying curiosities from an old man. It was a cryptic clue: he thought it had something to do with Dickens, but I suggested ‘antique dealer’ and that was the right answer. This is unusual because I’m not normally good at solving cryptic clues, I’m quite a literal thinker. I can see the logic behind cryptic clues when they are solved and I can analyse them after the event. So I felt a bit smug that I had found the answer; and a bit stressed in case he asked me to help with another clue. Thankfully he didn’t.
Friday was my baby’s birthday. 45 years old: when did that happen? It was only last year, surely, that we had that dash through the Fenland fog to get to the maternity ward in time for him not to be delivered in the car. Oh my, how time does fly: we mustn’t waste a moment of it, it’s all gone too quickly. I posted his card in Manchester, in that iconic post box outside M&S that survived the IRA bomb in 1996. I don’t know why it mattered, but I wanted to post it in that particular post box. I think it earned its right to be well-used when it survived such significant trauma.
A bit like me, when you think about it.
Anyway, here’s a poem I wrote for Spelks last week. I was appalled to see the 19,000 effigies of the dead of the first day of the Somme. Why do they always portray these things as if they should impress us? That image of that square of grass with those little white souls stayed with me for a long time, and made me angry. Remembrance Day makes me angry. I donate to the poppy appeal because of the good work it funds; but I don’t subscribe to the whole remembrance thing, which it seems to me is less about remembering and more about ‘look at us remembering, see how good we are for remembering’ while we continue to send more young people to be killed and maimed in wars. If we truly remembered, surely that would mark an end of war. Enough of politics. The poem:
Nineteen Thousand Effigies
So this morning I’m looking at a small square of lawn.
On the grass, at ease, nineteen thousand effigies,
diminished white souls row upon row, column upon column.
This, oh Lord, is ten souls per year since Bethlehem.
This, oh Lord, represents the dead on the first day of the Somme.
And why, oh Lord, did you accept this sacrifice
when you condemned the golden calf?
Oh, how we wear out the cliché
they made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
See in this the abnegation of blame—sacrifice
as active verb, something those young men did to themselves.
Surely sacrifice is passive, something the sacrificial lamb
has done to it in the appeasement of gods.
And (say it) what happened on the Somme was
the sacrificial slaughter of a generation, the wasting
of beautiful youth. And what of all the other effigies
there’s no room for on this patch of lawn; all the other days?
Nineteen thousand effigies should spell the end of war.
But the young are cheap meat for voracious cannon
so we cleanse the tiny white souls of gut and gore
and wear the poppy to show the world how well we remember,
lay wreaths at cenotaphs, stand silent for a moment
on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,
talk in reverend tones of sacrifice, recite glorious poems,
at the going down of the sun
some corner of a foreign field
lest we forget
to show the world we remember
what memory can’t conceivably hold.