This week has been all about poetry. These are my favourite weeks, where the madness of poetry helps to keep me sane.
I spent Sunday writing the Selima Hill chapter. I had to tell Bill, in no understated terms, to leave me alone in the study to get on with it. He is a very kind man and thinks it helps if he offers me cups of tea occasionally: it doesn’t help! I’m a writer who can’t do with interruption. My son can’t work without music on in the background, some of my friends write while watching the television or listening to the radio. I need silence. I need my own space and my thoughts flitting around my head like butterflies until they settle on the page. I prefer the house to be empty, but if that’s not possible, I must have the space of the study clear of interruptions. I think it’s important to maintain the conditions that are productive for you, because concentration is everything; broken concentration is a double whammy because it disrupts the thoughts you were unravelling and also limits the production of new thoughts. So stick to your guns and make sure you have the conditions that suit your style of working. Stick up for yourself. PhD is hard enough without not being as kind to yourself as you can.
Anyway, I did get the space to myself on Sunday and I enjoyed it, re-reading Selima’s work and finding in it hidden clues to support my thesis. The clues are there if you look in the right places, because that’s how poetry works: the poet writes the poem based on their observations/experience/imagination/inspiration. Then the reader comes along with their own and separate observations/experience/imagination/inspiration and between them, the poet and the reader, they construct the poem. So the poem exists not as the single entity of the poet’s intention, but as as many entities as there are its readers. It’s like this with all written words: the reader brings a world of experience to interpreting and decoding the message. That’s why we so often say of poems or songs: they have written my experience, this ‘song’ or this ‘poem’ is about me, about my life. So, anyway, I wrote another 2000 words on Monday so I now have nearly 4000 and counting. The rest of the week was diverted from PhD work, poetry and life took precedence, but I’ll be back at my desk later today adding to, perfecting the chapter before sending it off to the supervisory team for discussion.
On Monday afternoon I had an interesting meeting at MMU about a ‘research buddies’ scheme they are trying to establish. Post-Grad research students were asked before Christmas if we were interested in being involved; I decided to accept the invitation because I have found initiation into the mysteries of PhD very challenging, as you know if you read this blog regularly; and I thought that experience might be help and support to other students who struggle with it; so I signed up and Monday was the initial meeting to see how a buddies scheme might look and what kind of support it might offer. I enjoyed the meeting no end, and it was good to meet other post-grad students from different areas of study. I must say, I impressed myself with how grown-up I felt in the group discussions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being narcissistic; but as a headteacher I always had that peculiar feeling that I was in the wrong body, that somewhere along the line I had fooled someone into thinking I could do this job and now I had to pretend I could do it. I know now that this is a common feeling among headteacher friends I have spoken to; but then I used to look around headteacher meetings and think ‘how do they know so much?’ I didn’t think for a minute they were probably thinking the same about me. Don’t get me wrong, I was good at my job and I enjoyed it, but always that feeling of inadequacy. I have to say here that it has more to do with the constantly changing nature of education than with any incompetence among the professionals. But on Monday at this PhD research meeting I actually felt as if I knew what I was talking about, which was a wonderfully empowering feeling! And it was a meeting that felt resolved: we came to conclusions that are going to be enacted by the university and there will be a second meeting when a draft protocol is prepared for discussion. I’m glad I decided to be involved.
I stayed in Manchester after the meeting. I worked in the library for a while then went to find food: that sad thing about dining alone in a restaurant. But I took a book with me, and you’re never alone with a book. Because Monday evening was Carol Ann Duffy and friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre. These are wonderful poetry events. MMU Writing School MA students get to read their work alongside the Poet Laureate and another headline poet of national/international standing. This week my lovely friend Hilary Robinson was one of the MA students reading along with Keith Hutson and an exciting young man whose name I forget but who is definitely a poet to watch. The headline poet for this event was ex-Makar Liz Lochead. So Hilary got to share the stage with two Poets Laureate, what a wonderful opportunity is that for an aspiring poet? It was a lovely event, wonderful poetry; and Liz Lochead bought one of our Spelk pamphlets on the strength of Hilary’s terrific reading. Fantastic.
During the ‘life’ filled rest of the week, I did manage to work on my portfolio poem that I mentioned last week. I took a whole new look at it, which I’ll explain at the end of this blog. I also started the process of making poems for Spelks, not before time as we meet next week. But this activity involved photosensitive fabric and required some sunshine, which has been in short-supply on Saddleworth lately; but the sun shone hugely on Friday so I made my image. I’m on my way and I’ll tell you more next week.
This brings us to Saturday; another of my favourite events, Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. This was our first event of 2017, and it was a blinder! The day started with a workshop run by Ian Duhig. We shared stories and recounted each others stories as if they were our own, then wrote about something we had heard during the morning. I wrote about a village in Africa where women without the protection of men are treated very badly, with only the protection of a woman designated ‘witch’ to protect them. It is a poem in the making and might reach these pages one day.
In the afternoon we had our P&P readings. Music, and musical drama, was provided by Chris Davies, Henry Botham and Katy-Anne Bellis. Here are a couple of photos of their wonderful performance:
Becky Cherriman and Fiona Benson read in the first half followed by our headline poet, Ian Duhig, hard on the heels of his shortlisting for the TS Eliot prize for The Blind Roadmaker, which I bought and got signed. It was a wonderful afternoon, fantastic readings, great entertainment. There was standing room only as visitors to the Whitworth packed the south gallery to watch the monster from Where The Wild Things Are do a Gene Kelly, ‘Singing in the rain’ tap-dance. Good stuff; and it’s all free of charge. After the event, we, the committee, met in the cafe to continue planning for the rest of the year. The next event is on February 25th. Details of our exciting future events can be found on our website: poets&players.co
So that’s it then; another packed week! Here is the poem I’ve been drafting for my portfolio. It concerns a father who has had a stroke and the daughter who is his carer trying to make sense of his disrupted speech. At first I wanted him to have a voice, because I know from my own experience of this that the stroke victim thinks they are talking sense; the words make sense in their heads but the production suffers. But the poem didn’t work if the speaker made sense to the listener so I did a sort of ‘oulipo’ thing and went to the dictionary for words close in sound to the words the father was trying to utter; then I made some compound words using these words. This represents his speech; most of it doesn’t make sense, but I hope some of it will carry a gist. The intervening stanzas are the daughter’s responses. Of course, in the portfolio I won’t be able to provide this kind of explanation, but I hope the context of the poem in the collection will go some way to explain it. Anyway, here it is, in all its imperfections:
Lipstick! toadmouse trapmouse
mould ras-ras-rascal searaft
wattle-weave ears-years ears-years
Lipstick for fucksake!
What do you want Daddy?
your words are scrambled like eggs
What are you after? Is it keys,
a pee, a cup of tea? I can’t solve cryptic.
Listless! Listless! tonsil-worm-work
bread-breast heard-word stupid
Listless for fucksake!
What do you want Daddy?
Words are sliding out of your mouth
like speedy eels that keep wriggling
long after they’re chopped up in the bucket,
long after they’re dead. You’re making
slippery eel words but my eel nets are torn.
I can’t catch what you’re after. I don’t speak eel.
bridge-welly maaa-market trumptoast
Liversausage for fucksake!
Calm down eel daddy, swim slower.
Tell me what you want.