Make no mistake, it’s a struggle juggling life, poetry and a PhD. I have two Bachelor degrees, two Masters degrees and they were hard but I never doubted I would be able to finish them. A PhD is a whole new ball game. It is very hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and it should be. I had a conversation this week with a poet friend who is struggling with the pain-in-the-arse that is RD1. I remember it well. My own struggle with it seems a lifetime ago, it is hard and I feel her pain. But it’s a hurdle that has to be jumped in order to get onto the good stuff. And then the good stuff is hard as well. She has a fantastic PhD project, and in order to get onto that she has to sign off RD1. She can do this!
Every week I ask myself why I am putting myself through it: I don’t need to do it, I don’t need a job in academe. But of course, for me it isn’t about academe, it isn’t about employment; it’s all about a personal challenge, a vanity almost. For this friend of mine, a professional poet who is also doing some undergrad teaching at MMU, it is about career and I guess that makes it harder; she is driven as well by an ambition outside her own personal motivation. I have the luxury of saying it’s the journey, not the destination: if I don’t achieve the PhD at the end of it, at least I’ve enjoyed the ride. I’ve learned loads, had an amazing quality of mentoring by two professional academics and one wonderful poet in Jean Sprackland. The added pressure of career ambition must be unbearable. C’mon, jump that hurdle, get onto what you’re good at: poetry and the personal that’s political.
I’ve had a brilliant week this week, got lots done. On Sunday last, I started my crown of sonnets inspired by my reading of Rita Dove and the visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the City Art Gallery. I drafted three sonnet stanzas, so you could say, if you were really naff, that I have a sonnet half-a-crown! It even has a rhyme scheme of sorts; a near-rhyme scheme really. I worked a lot on the first sonnet, tightening it up, cutting the dross. I’m quite pleased with it. The other two need lots of work in terms of persona voice, form etc. I’ve tinkered with it all week. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with you yet as I’m also writing it for Spelks and I need to keep it for the next Spelkerama next week. You might see it, or some of it, soon though.
Also on Sunday, I redrafted and submitted my political rant, inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’. This is for the Beautiful Dragons anthology, Noble Dissent, which will be published later in the year. I sent the first draft to editor, Rebecca Bilkau, and she liked it but advised it needed to be tightened up, being a prose poem therefore a big block of text. I had already redrafted it by the time she got back to me; so I’m hoping the version I submitted this week will be accepted as it is. I loved writing this one.
On Monday this week it was the third and last event in the current series of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange. Carol Ann read a couple of poems; three strong MMU Writing School MA students read poems that are contributing to their portfolios; the house poets read a poem each, a fantastic new one by Mark Pajak; then Adam O’Riordan finished the evening with a reading from his new collection A Herring Famine, which Carol Ann is tipping as a major prize-winner this year. I love these events, to be steeped in poetry with the added advantage of meeting up with lots of poet friends. The next series will be in the autumn; keep an eye out for ticket sales because they go like the proverbial hot cakes.
Driving to the park and ride to catch the tram on Monday evening, my poor little motor was making a most alarming sound on right turns: sort of like a seven-league bedspring going off. It sounded expensive. I limped home at the end of the evening and didn’t move my car again until I took it to the car hospital on Thursday. On Tuesday morning I rang the Vauxhall dealership to book it in for repair: they couldn’t fit me in until April 7th. April 7th? That’s longer than it takes to see a GP! I rang the local garage just down the road and they fitted me in for Thursday morning. I settled for the local garage.
The rest of Tuesday was dedicated to PhD. I prepared a timetable of writing tasks; literally booking time slots to fit writing into my life. I worked on the advice of The Clockwork Muse by Evictor Zerubavel. He advocates seeing your writing in small, bite-sized pieces rather than the whole project: work on a couple of pages until you are happy with them before moving on. So I wrote two-page writing bites into my timetable, which only goes to the end of March: I wanted to test it out, see if I need to modify it at all before filling it in further. I worked on the first task in my timetable: reworking the first two pages of the Selima Hill section. I worked on it most of the rest of Tuesday. There is a lot to be said for working on small sections, perfecting them before moving on. Having perfected those two pages I can see now where I need to put more academic authority into them, and that will be the next task for them. That is what writing is all about: drafting, redrafting, perfecting. I think this timetable is going to be an asset. I planned creative as well as critical tasks into the timetable, so that neither dominates. I’ll be working on them side-by-side; which is good because often the critical work sparks ideas for the creative and it’s right not to wait.
On Wednesday I had to rely on lifts to get me to my job at the Black Ladd. Oh, how I hate the loss of independence when my car is off the road. So I was very pleased on Thursday morning to get it to the garage at 8.30 a.m., just when they were opening up. The mechanic had first hand knowledge of the bed-spring sound as I parked it up to wait for treatment. He said he would get back to me when he’d inspected it. We went on to Tesco to do the week’s shopping. I received the phone call at lunchtime: the driver’s side front spring had broken and needed replacing. It would cost £132, did I want him to go ahead with it? Well, I had been thinking £4-or-500 so, yes, I did want him to go ahead with it. And when he told me it would be about 2 hours, I was delighted. We went to collect it at 4.00 p.m., sounding as good as new. Oh yes, I’ll be going there again in future. Of course, waiting around for garage phone calls interrupted the flow of work on the timetable, but Thursday’s task was a creative one, and really I work best on creative writing in the early mornings, so I know I can make that up, no problem.
Friday was a lovely day: cold, but full of bright sunshine that makes you think winter is in retreat at last. We parked the car outside Uppermill and walked in along the canal path. The canal has been drained for maintenance work, just a dribble on the canal bed; but the ducks were still sitting in it, looking slightly ridiculous, like duck delegates to a conference on global warming. They were still managing to do the ‘up tails all’ thing, in only inches of water. They are pairing off for the spring reproduction, though, and the sunshine must have uplifted them somewhat. On Friday evening I met my friend Joan. We first met on holiday at Lake Como in 1995 and we have met for dinner almost every month since then. On Friday we went to Panama Hatty’s in Prestwich. Lovely meal. The M62 was a nightmare on the drive to her house, though; for most of that section of the journey I didn’t get above 20mph and second gear; then on the way home, the exit road from the M60 to the M62 was closed, but they didn’t flag it up until I was already on the M60, so I had to do a full 360 on the roundabout and drive back to Oldham and go home by a different route. I think the ‘different route’ might become the standard route in future, cutting out the M62 altogether. It has aspirations to being a smart motorway, but it isn’t being very smart at the moment.
Saturday saw me at my desk again. The timetable said ‘rewrite the “sonnet paragraph” of the Hill section’. Well, confession: I didn’t get it rewritten; but I did do a lot of preparatory reading–Montefiore, Paterson, the Cambridge Companion– deciding what is relevant to include to enhance the argument for subversion of the form. I was pleased with what I achieved. At lunchtime I had a visit from Angus, Ben and Cooper (the Cockerpoo). They brought me a lovely bunch of flowers for Mothers’ Day. Unfortunately Amie was at work and couldn’t come: Mother’s Weekend is always a busy one in the hospitality industry. Downstairs I have cards from all my children, waiting to be opened. As the cheesy FaceBook meme says, everyday is Mothers’ Day when you have children as lovely as mine.
On Saturday night we put the clocks forward an hour: winter is officially done. I can’t wait to see this evening being light until after 8.00. Yes, we made it for another year!
I’m including a poem for my late mother this week, in honour of Mothers’ Day. I don’t write nostalgic, lovey-dovey, mumsy poems: despite–because of?–the nine children she gave birth to, our mum wasn’t the maternal sort. So my relationship with my mother isn’t one I’m sentimental about. This poem is a memory of my sister and me ‘getting it’ for laughing at the tea table. It didn’t stop us laughing though.
What I remember of the spoon is
how it was her crowd control at mealtimes
how she held it upright in her hand,
it’s handle to the table-top, how it tapped
a rhythm like a slow drum,
how when we laughed we knew the spoon
would greet us with a firm handshake,
a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself
on the back of our hands, how we tried
not to laugh but it was a contagion,
how you tried to drown your laughter
in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves
across your face like freckles and we laughed,
laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now