Monthly Archives: July 2017

Brain gym, Todmorden and Tutankhamun

I read this week that keeping your brain active is prophylaxis against dementia. Well I should be protected then, my brain is never still. I’m a gold medal reader; I write; even when I’m watching rubbish on the telly I’m usually doing an iPad sudoku at the same time. My brain thinks it’s had a good night if it sleeps five hours. When I retired from my primary headship one lovely child said to me, ‘you’ll be able to put your feet up now.’ I have to report, feet-up hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve had another busy week. I spent Sunday being creative for the PhD. I edited a poem I wrote some time ago and wasn’t happy with. ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ is a poem I wrote about a photograph of my mother and her sisters when they were little girls. I redrafted it as a modern sonnet, but it doesn’t really like being restrained in this form. I was more happy with it after spending a couple of hours on it, but it still asks a lot of the reader. My maternal grandma was Lord Caernarvon’s cook: he who bankrolled the Tutankhamun pyramid raid, so I allude to that in the poem, but it isn’t clear why. Anyway, I decided to take it to Stanza on Tuesday for feedback.

Monday I spent a lovely day with family. Amie, Richard and I went to Todmorden for lunch in a vegan café, The Old Co-op. Amie had discovered it in an internet search: Richard is a vegan and he always seems to get last dibs on an exciting meal when we go out.   The Old Co-op was lovely though, lots of choice. I can’t seem to say the same for the rest of Todmorden, unfortunately. Perhaps we didn’t look in the right spaces, but there didn’t seem to be too much to hang around for, and what there was was horribly depressing–sorry if Todmorden is your home, but that’s how I felt. I’m open to being convinced otherwise. We drove back to Shaw and caught Metrolink into Manchester for a look around. My younger son, Michael, got in touch while we were having lunch, so we were all together in spirit.

On Tuesday I had the day to myself: Bill was out of the house playing golf. I had a hair appointment first thing. I took my Kindle and when I called into Java in Uppermill for a coffee before coming home to settle to PhD work, I was able to read some of Jessica Benjamin so I felt less as if I was skiving. I love my Kindle: how you can carry a library in your handbag. It’s no good for poetry as a rule, though. It messes with the formatting. But it is brilliant for academic books because you can highlight passages without feeling like a book vandal; and you can immediately check references in the body of the writing. When I got home I worked on the sonnet crown. I’m chipping away at it all the time, making the dialogue more natural, colloquial, believable. I like it more every time I work on it.

Tuesday evening it was Stanza. We met at the Britannia Inn in Mossley: it’s becoming our new home. It was the anonymous workshop this month, when members send me a poem they want feedback on and I send them all out without names attached. We find this leads to more honest, less constrained feedback if we don’t know who we are addressing; although it has to be said, when you get to know the poets, it isn’t difficult to guess who wrote what. We had six members this month and a very pleasant evening with good discussion around the poems. I took my ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ and at the end of the evening, when the poets had owned up to the poems, Rod asked if it was part of my crown of sonnets. No, it isn’t; but that did give me a way into the problem of clarifying it. It could be a crown: I could develop it in that way to reveal it to the reader. Thanks Rod, I feel another sonnet crown coming on.

Wednesday, after doing the books at the Black Ladd, Bill and I went into Oldham for an evening meal prior to going to the new Odeon Cinema in the town centre to watch ‘Dunkirk’. I’m not avid for war films, but this one had Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance in, three of my favourite actors so they were my draw. And they didn’t disappoint. The film itself was like watching the first ten minutes of Private Ryan for a full two hours: it was mental torture; but they, and particularly Rylance, were brilliant. He was at his understated best. I loved him as Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’; and I saw him play Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Globe some years ago. He definitely retrieved Dunkirk from becoming a death wish!

Thursday was all domestic stuff; and I worked with Amie to review her menus. Friday I bought some prescription sunglasses with the 50% off voucher I got from Specsavers when I picked up my new specs. The sunglasses are a bit of an indulgence, but I find lenses that change shade with the sun are fine outdoors but it takes a bit of time for them to clear when you go indoors, rendering you temporarily vision impaired. Hence the sunglasses. My distance vision is really too weak for normal sunglasses now. Ho hum!

Saturday I was at my desk just after 8.00. I dedicated most of the day to the creative element of my PhD. I went through my portfolio, editing poems that needed it, and I spent five glorious hours sending poems out for publications and competitions, including sending a selection of my portfolio poems to the Overton Prize organised by Loughborough University, details here:

They accept poems that have been previously published so that’s a bonus. I also sent off a couple of non-portfolio poems for consideration for a children’s anthology of humorous poems aimed at children 7-11 years old. I sent poems about a woodlouse and a jelly fish. So, some of my babies are out there, finding their way in the world. Wish them luck.

In the afternoon I did some more reading of Benjamin’s Bonds of Love. This is going to inform my analysis of Pascale Petit’s poetry when Mama Amazonica arrives. By the end of Saturday, the old brain was complaining it needed a rest. Sorry, can’t rest: let’s watch Vera and do a sudoku, shall we?

I’m going to give you ‘Grandma Ghost’ as my poem this week, mainly because I know it’s nowhere near ready for publication. After Tuesday I have decided to develop it into a crown of sonnets, so that I can show the story without having to spell it out. The story is, I didn’t know either of my grandmas. As I said earlier, my maternal grandma, the one of the poem, was the cook for Lord Caernarvon before she married my granddad. He–Lord Caernarvon, not granddad–bankrolled the discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Of course, since then there has always been speculation about a ‘mummy’s curse’ on those involved, many of them dying young; including my grandma who died very young, although I don’t think she actually went out to Egypt. My mother left her nursing career to nurse grandma in her final illness. I don’t know much more about her than that, really. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t miss her when I was growing up; I didn’t realise what a grandma was until I became one myself, so I miss her more in my dotage than I ever did as a child. I have tended to invent her bit by bit; and this poem is part of that.

Dear Grandma Ghost

Inscrutable in her organza frock,
white stockings, button bar shoes, this girl
I don’t know who became my mother.
Was she your princess Grandma Ghost?

I wish I’d missed you when I was growing up.
You were a story passed down in instalments,
the shadowy outline of a Pharaoh’s curse.

I used to imagine you cooking the lunch
as Anubis stood at the gates of hell licking his lips,
ensuring you all exited stage left in the desert heat
pursued by a mummy. And he caught you

before we had chance to meet, before I could ask you,
Grandma Ghost, about this girl who’s my mother,
inscrutable in her organza frock.

Rachel Davies
July 2017

Everything I’ve got in my pocket…

As a poet, I hate clichés, of course I do. But sometimes, only a cliché will do. So I’m going to use one right now. Here it comes, are you ready? OK. There are no strangers, there are only friends we haven’t met yet. There, I’ve done it.

I started writing this blog for my own benefit, to see how PhD would fit into my life as a poet, what would have to go to make space for it. And since I started the blog,  I’ve frequently been amazed by the number of people who read it every week. I have sometimes been to poetry meetings—readings and so on—when people I’ve heard of or know by sight but don’t actually ‘know’ yet approach me to say how much they enjoy my blog every week, how much they look forward to it. Well that’s good, because I love writing it. This month I am in line to have the most readers in a month since I started writing it regularly a couple of years ago and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than an audience.

But today was extra special. Someone I hadn’t met yet, didn’t even know by sight, claimed to be my biggest fan. Obviously she doesn’t know about the Pro-Breeze oscillating 30in tower fan in the conservatory, because that’s a very big fan; but I’ll take the accolade none-the-less.

She reminded me that writing, and particularly writing poetry, is such a joy to me; I came to it late, after I retired from my other life, and it feels like the life I was supposed to be living all along. It fits me; I’m happy in its skin. No-one told me poetry can be a life, that it can be what you do with—what you make of—your life. When I ‘did’ poetry at school it was all the Male Romantics: Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth etc; Byron was out: far too risqué, far too risky; sometimes we got a dose of Philip Larkin if the teacher was in a forward looking mood. I didn’t even know there were women in poetry. Women poets were the silent minority, possibly the unacknowledged ‘Anon’ of the anthologies of poetry in the school library. I didn’t discover the likes of Carol Ann Duffy, Adrienne Rich, Fleur Adcock, Jackie Kay and a myriad other women poets, until I did the BA literature with the OU when I was well into my fifties.

But as Percy Bysshe Shelley knew, and as I’ve waited a lifetime to discover, poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. I can’t comment on the quality of my mind, although I think it’s pretty sharp; but I can vouch for the mental happiness. Poetry is the result and the cause of the happiness that comes with knowing I’m in the right life at last.

So I thought I’d write an extra blog this week especially for her, whatever her name. This is it. Hopefully it will serve to help me break my readership record, but that would be a by-product. I’ve drafted a poem to go with it, a poem about poetry, inspired by a favourite Minnie Driver song. I offer it especially to my self-professed ‘biggest fan’—and I’m not talking about the Pro-Breeze. Thank you, whoever you are, for reminding me how blessed I am.


The Best Poem I Haven’t Written Yet

I’d bet everything I’ve got in my pocket
some loose change, a torn tissue
a humbug leaking from its wrapper
a Metrolink ticket, a till receipt
a smart phone, a notebook and pencil
an original thought, a stupid question,
a lifetime of memories, the ones I’ve forgotten
a straight rhyme or a slant rhyme,
a strong rhythm, five feet, an end-stop
or enjambments, caesuras, white space,
a study in form, some stanzas and images,
a world lingua franca

to find, balled with the fluff in its unexplored corners,
the last of my three wishes
that one poem…

Rachel Davies
July 2017

A rare case of terminal optimism

If I was asked what is the most beneficial attribute to doing work towards a PhD, I would have to say ‘a positive attitude’. I’ve always been a ‘glass half full’ sort of woman but I’m also given to opposing bouts of self-doubt. But it’s a positive disposition that puts the difficulty of doing PhD work into perspective. I’ve had a good week this week fuelling, and fuelled by, a positive mindset.

I’m going to start with the big birthday. Sunday was the best day ever. I had lots of lovely cards, including a chocolate one from my daughter which I shared with Bill: I’m generous like that. I had some gorgeous presents: my glittery Docs, my bee tattoo, my Apple watch; but also a ceramic salt pig and a gift card for M&S. And from a poet friend, a poetry collection, Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers which I’m enjoying no end. On the afternoon of my 70th, Roger Federer set a new record for the number of Wimbledon wins, this year being his eighth, making it a memorable day on the world stage. I spoke to all my children; and we have booked a holiday cottage on Anglesey in August so we can all get together for a Big Birthday Bash. Bill and I went out to eat in Manchester on Sunday evening, then shared a bottle of champagne when we got home. I had such a good day, I’m thinking I’ll be 70 again next year. I celebrated so well I felt as if I’d been blown out with the candles on Monday. I just wanted to put my feet up, so the gym went by the board. I met up with Amie for a birthday chat over coffee instead.

Sunday was the way marker for a good week. I had such a satisfying day of work on Tuesday I almost forgot to stop for lunch. I added to the section about the sonnet as a metaphor for patriarchy in the literary canon. I put my analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ into readable words and spent time reading Christina Rossetti’s ‘Monna Innominata’, another sonnet cycle in the tradition of the love sonnet, but written from the viewpoint of the silenced woman. I also reordered the Hill chapter in line with advice from Antony and Angelica. I lost some of its bulk too. I think I have a more stream-lined, well organised chapter now, it reads well in my opinion. I hope it will also read well in theirs. So, by the time I stopped work on Tuesday afternoon I was feeling good; I had the rare feeling that this thing is going well and perhaps I can do it after all. FaceBook is full of graduation photographs at the moment: I began to believe I could be posting my own in a couple of years time.  Those positive moments don’t happen often enough: I’ve been prone to floundering in self-doubt over this project, beat myself up for perceived inadequacies, so I enjoyed that light-hearted feeling, that positive skip in the step I achieved on Tuesday.

On Friday it was Amie’s quarterly VAT visit from the accountant. No problems there, except the amount to pay. In the afternoon I went into Oldham to collect my new specs. I can see again! A pair of varifocals and a separate pair of reading glasses. I can read with my varifocals, of course I can, but am I the only one who finds it difficult to read a book in them? I feel as if I’m always moving my head from side to side to catch the print; so I have a separate pair of reading glasses for book reading. I’m doing a lot of that at the moment.

On Saturday, back to my books. I finished the sonnet section, at least in first draft. So, by the end of the day I had two completed sections in a new folder on the MacBook. I had a very pleasant day researching modern sonnets. The Reality Street Book of Sonnets shows how the sonnet form can be completely manipulated for a modern/post-modern poet: some of the sonnets in there are extreme and off-the-wall challenging. I also read Bernadette Mayer’s collection Sonnets. She gives a whole new perspective to the love sonnet, let me tell you. Very physical. Love is situated not in the heart but in the c**t and cock, for Mayer. I have the 25th anniversary edition, which includes her ‘skinny sonnets’ at the back, sonnets that have three or four words to a line. In one case the sestet is a list of six children’s names, one name to a line. That’s it. It all helps to show how women have continually pushed against the patriarchal constraints of the traditional sonnet form. Fascinating.

When I’d tidied up the ends of the sonnet section, I tried some of the writing exercises in Rowena Murray’s How to Write a Thesis. I enjoy these writing exercises, they are a good way into making me think about my writing, think about what it is I’m trying to achieve; and why. I spoke to a fellow PhD research student on the recent ‘Writing Up Writing Down’ course I attended; he had taken some of the writing exercises from this book and formed his introduction. I can see how that can happen, they really do concentrate the mind in very practical ways.

And amid all this writing productivity, I have been reading. I keep dipping into Murray’s practical guide all the time; but I have also finished reading Gilbert and Gubar’s iconic feminist lit-crit book, The Madwoman in the Attic. A good read. And I’ve started to reread Jessica Benjamin The Bonds of Love in readiness for my analysis of Pascale Petit’s poetry. I’ve been reading The Huntress again: I love that collection, can’t wait to get my critical teeth into it. And I’ve preordered her Mama Amazonica from the Poetry Book Society; I’ve been waiting for this to be released for months. I’ve heard her read poems from it on two occasions, once at the Freud Centre in London early in 2016 and again at Poets&Players earlier this year. I think it isn’t actually published until the autumn, so I’ll have to wait a bit to get stuck into that one.

That’s it then; another week of PhD work well and truly knocked into shape.

On my last birthday, as some of you know, I had an unfortunate accident, fell in Manchester and broke a vertebra, spent my birthday in Manchester Royal Infirmary. This year, I’m pleased to say, I got through the birthday without mishap, finished it all in one piece. So I’m posting a poem this week that is autobiographical, about being clumsy, being accident prone. When you knock yourself about as much as I do, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. It’s a list, hinting at the several accidents I’ve had in my past. There have been more, of course; but you have to draw a line somewhere and move on. Enjoy a laugh at my misfortune: I do it all the time.


Accident Prone

it’s really not my fault
it’s really about how the table stepped in front of me

it’s really about how the stairs became a switch-back
it’s really about how the doorstep put its foot out to trip me up

it’s really about how the plate just knew you were in the next room
it’s really about how the bed grew thinner overnight

it’s really about how the soap leapt off the soap dish
and slipped itself under my foot

it’s really about how the kerb was just getting its own back
it’s really about how the branch told me it was stronger than that it was

it’s really about how she put too much coffee in the cup
it’s really about how the water didn’t actually look green

it’s really about how that Ming vase had a wonky bottom
it’s really about how the rosebush reached out and grabbed my skirt

it’s really not my fault, she made me do it.

Rachel Davies
May 2017

A tattered coat upon a stick? Not likely!

Well, I reached my three score years and ten. 70. Bloody ‘ell, I didn’t think I’d ever be that old! Do you know what’s really weird? I don’t feel any different! When I was a girl, I used to wake up on my birthday and feel taller, as if I’d grown overnight. Today feels just like yesterday. I haven’t grown. I haven’t even grown up. Matthew Arnold’s experience of ageing–‘It is to spend long days/ And not once feel that we were ever young./ It is to add, immured/ In the hot prison of the present, month/ To month with weary pain‘–isn’t mine, thank heaven: No, like Yeats I believe ‘An aged [wo]man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress.’ It’s that ‘unless’ that does it for me. Yes, clap and ‘louder sing’: age is a frame of mind, nothing but a number. That’s why my favourite birthday gifts this year so far have been my first ever tattoo from No. 1 son, Richard; and these wonderful Doc Marten’s from my lovely daughter, Amie:


How fantastic are they? I think my soul can ‘clap…and sing’ in these. I’ll be wearing them later when I go out with Bill to celebrate. Put the champagne in the fridge. Happy birthday to me.

This birthday comes at the end of a good week.  Following my annual review with Michael last week, I launched some personal research into ‘quality’ poetry journals. I decided on a deep read of the Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s own journal. A poetry friend said she found it pretentious and I have to agree with her that some of it was. Why put in oblique strokes (/) instead of line breaks, for instance: what does that add to the poem? Or put in full stops but not follow them with a capital letter? I can understand omitting punctuation altogether, but this seemed arbitrary to me, random, a selective route to rule-breaking. But there was some wonderful work in there too: Andrew MacMillan’s sensuous poetry is always exciting to read; and Moniza Alvi’s ‘A Portrait of the World’: wow. ‘…despite it all–/the carnage, the onslaught/of the centuries–/a gold-green fish still swims,/a pale bird flies.’ The good thing is, I actually think this is a journal I could fit into, I’ll probably give it a go at some stage this year.

I also received my copy of PN Review: a carcanet publication edited by Michael Schmidt. Oh my, how academic is that one? I enjoyed reading it, but it is very deep, very intellectually challenging. Somehow, after this one reading, I don’t see myself in there at all. My sonnet crown, for instance, has the line ‘tits slapping my knees’; I’m not being over-sensitive when I reflect that line would lower the tone by several decibels! That meeting with Michael also sent me back to my poetry to evaluate it for publication and I spent a few happy hours with the red pen looking for improvements. Believe me, I found plenty: we always do, don’t we? I’ve revisited the crown of sonnets, the one that has the above immortal line about knees. It’s a fact that editing your work is a long process of ‘comma in? comma out?’ before you don’t actually care if the comma’s there or not. Perhaps that’s what happened to the capital letters not following all those full stops? It was just an exhausted editing decision.

I’ve been reading Gilbert and Gubar The Madwoman in the Attic this week too. I have never read it before: I’ve read lots of extracts from it, it is after all an icon of feminist literary criticism. But I’ve never actually sat down with the book. I’ve been missing out! It’s such a good read; and so readable. I’m loving it. In the light of my reading of G and G, I also did an edit of the chapter about the sonnet as metaphor for patriarchy. Their question about pen as a metaphor for penis, men wielding the literary power; well, I had to use that.

Finally, on the PhD front, I spent a few hours analysing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet cycle ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’; a sonnet cycle in which the speaker addresses the man she loves, telling the history of the love affair. It’s a sonnet cycle in the tradition of sonnet cycles then; except the speaker of this cycle is a woman and she still places herself as below her man in worth. He is an emperor, a leader among poets, a laureate; her songs are poor things by comparison, a chirping cricket, a cracked viol. So it’s still a sonnet cycle that holds the mirror up to the excellence of the male; but she was in love at the time, so I suppose she could only see Robert in her mind’s eye. Not that the cycle is autobiographical, of course; not at all. Not really; not much. Oh, alright, it probably is; almost certainly is; but I mustn’t say so!

In other news, I had my eyes tested on Tuesday. Yes, all this reading  is taking its toll: a new reading prescription and the distance vision has deteriorated slightly too; and I have the start of cataracts, apparently, not helped by prescription steroids. So, perhaps my coat is getting tattered after all. But my new specs will have my soul singing and clapping: Red or Dead, with changeable arms to suit the mood. Bring it on.

This has been a week of sport too: Wimbledon; and a test match against South Africa. Two of my favourite sports in one week. Two years ago I won tickets to the Lords test against Australia and spent my birthday in London, watching the cricket. On the evening of the 15th we went to see Simon Armitage at The Globe, performing his epic ‘Death of the King’; that was a fantastic night, then my birthday at the cricket. Thankfully, England are doing better against South Africa than they did that year against Australia; although after yesterday, don’t hold your breath on that one! The tennis, though? Fantastic to see Federer in another final, with a very real prospect of winning. What an elegant player he is, a joy to watch. I’ll definitely be in front of the telly this afternoon, whatever else I do today.

Lastly, something that happened in Tesco this week. We went into the cafe there for a cappuccino before tackling the weekly bun-fight that is food shopping. I went to the loo, and there was no soap in there for hand washing, so I told a man who works in the cafe. ‘Oh, you’ll have to find a cleaner’, he said, ‘the toilets are nothing to do with us’! Well, I was shocked! I wanted to go out and catch food poisoning just so I could show him why it’s a good idea to make sure there is soap in the toilets attached to your cafe. Surely they have some system of reporting? I was so incensed, I went to Customer Services and told them; because I wasn’t prepared to go around Tesco looking for someone who might be a cleaner. The words of the woman on Customer Services? ‘Well, I’m shocked!’ she said. Exactly. Good woman. Sort it out for me, will you?

A poem to finish; a poem about getting old. The memory is still sharp, but names are the first victims of forgetting. Names drop out of my brain like dandruff. This poem tries to say that.

Names are the first things to go

Your parents brought you to England as a bambino.
They stowed their language in their Roman tongues
but your English was faultless. We met at college,
you were an engineer, I was a nurse.

We sat beside each other at the year 2 prize-giving
I remember, where we both won first prizes.
You bought me a coffee after, asked me out,
picked me up in your father’s Sunbeam Rapier

the colour of rich Borolo, it’s grey leather seats
smelling new, smelling like money. You took me
to that little pizzeria in Stamford,
where we shared garlic bread and olives,

shared pizza with insalata tricolore, drank
the house wine and coffee with frothed milk.
Oh, you were beautiful, your smiling eyes,
your hair black as granite, your voice honey.

You held my hand and told me your history.
When we drove home you asked had I ever driven
at 100 mph and when I said no you pressed the pedal,
the car sliced the night air

past envious Harriers at Wittering, reached the ton
just before the Alwalton exit. We stopped in a lay-by
near Castor. Decades later the taste of garlic
still brings that kiss to mind.

All this I’ve remembered, but I’ve forgotten your name.

Rachel Davies
July 2015


Life’s challenges: clowns and getting high without chemicals.

When I was sixteen, my grammar school headteacher told me I’d end up in the gutter. The reason? I was seen talking to a secondary modern school boy on the Saturday before; the sin being that he wasn’t the right kind of boy, didn’t go to the right school, was beyond the pale. His comment has stayed with me all my life. It had a positive effect when I became a teacher myself: it taught me very well how NOT to treat children. Words should not be weapons. But it had an equal and opposite effect too: because words sometimes are weapons and they have an infinite power to wound. I have carried that comment all my life. It had a profound effect on the way I saw my worth for a long time; that lack of confidence still pokes me in the ribs sometimes even now, more than half a century later.

So, imagine my delight and euphoria this week after my annual review meeting with Michael Symmons Roberts. I was determined not to be nervous before I went; but as I walked down Oxford Road toward the All Saints campus, I could feel the bats in the abdominal belfry beginning to flutter. I hadn’t seen the report from my Director of Studies before the meeting, and it has been a challenging year, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, it was a very positive report, acknowledging the challenge, but very supportive of how far I’ve come in the year and what I’ve achieved. The entire meeting was a positive buzz: I don’t think Michael knows how to be any other way than positive. He said as part of my ‘original contribution to knowledge’ I should be sending my poems to ‘quality’ poetry journals. Referring to the first paragraph of this blog, I’ve never had the confidence in my poetry to be that ambitious. I’ve been published in several journals, been a prizewinner in several competitions, even first prize winner in some; but I’ve never dared aspire to the likes of Rialto or Magma. Dare I do it? Well, I’ve set that as a target for the year. I read somewhere this week that if you can do it, you shouldn’t do it. It was an aspirational remark, I think, which I interpreted as ‘if it doesn’t represent a challenge, it’s not valuable’. So, I’m going to get into a ‘quality’ poetry journal at least once this year, or die in the effort!

I left Michael’s office with a spring in my step: I think I even skipped along the landing toward the lifts. I met Bill for lunch after the meeting; I was still buzzing. I must have been: I ordered caraway flavoured Polish rye bread toast, with roast tomatoes and humus. When it arrived there were five pieces of toast. Five! I’m happy to report I ate them all.

So; the rest of my week: on Sunday I spent some time analysing Poets&Players evaluation questionnaires to get that job up to date. We are at the stage of preparing our annual Arts Council England bid for next year’s funding and the evaluations provide valuable feedback on the job we are doing. The feedback is mostly very positive and supportive: most of the developmental comments are beyond our brief, for instance the relative comfort of the chairs. We also write to all our poets and ask for a paragraph about their experience of reading for us. That is always very gratifying, because we look after our readers, they are important to us. So their feedback is always super-positive and very supportive. All grist to the mill, and hopefully we’ll be able to mount our wonderful programme of (free to the audience) events in 2017-18.  Fingers crossed for our ACE funding bid to be successful.

Tuesday was a day of PhD work, the kind I enjoy most. I was printing off and re-reading my portfolio of poems to have them all together for the review meeting. I was amazed to find I have sixty; and another ten that can be adapted for the theme. Of course they almost all need some reworking (some more than others), but it’s nice to know they’re there as a body of work. I made sure my PhD progress folder was all up to date and ready for the meeting. It was a satisfying morning; it showed me how far I’ve moved forward in the year. I hoped Antony, my DoS, recognised that. From the report he submitted, he clearly did, bless him.

Saturday was another day full of PhD. I decided I needed to get a real handle on some of the top poetry journals. I’m a Poetry Society member, so I always receive The Poetry Review and I always enjoy reading it. But on Saturday I really read it; I read it deeply to get a handle on the kind of work they accept. This was all research for the creative element of my PhD, of course. And I depressed myself all over again–I refer you again to paragraph one of this blog post. I question whether my poetry is of that standard. It’s going to need some work, for sure. But remember, if it can be done, don’t bother doing it. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth the effort. I have become complacent about my poetry, really, not pushed myself enough for a long time. This will be a challenge; and I’m up for giving it a go. I subscribed to Rialto, Magma and The North. I will submit to these journals in the course of the year and see what happens. This is the year of stepping up; watch this space.

After a jolly good and enjoyable read, I took the red pen to my poetry collection; it’s the moulding of a piece of writing into the best piece of writing it can be which is an enjoyable part of being a poet. The creation, the making and reworking to achieve something good. The seeing it from a higher plane is demanding. I have already seen how the poems can leave more ‘room for the reader’. I’m going to enjoy this. I wish I’d discovered poetry while I was young enough to make a career of it: no-one told me! I was retired before I learned of poetry’s scope. I lost too many years!

I’m going to leave you with a poem I rediscovered for The Other reading in Didsbury last week. After I submitted it to Michael Connelly for the reading, I spent several embarrassed hours wondering why I did that: why did I send that bizarre poem, of all the poems I have on file. I think it was because it’s a bit bizarre and I know Michael’s taste in poetry. In the event, he introduced it as his favourite poem of the set I sent him. He said it ‘reminded him of Carol Ann Duffy but in a good way’. I’m telling you this because it is a reflection on how difficult I find it to judge my own work: I suspect I’m not alone in this. I wrote it at a Poetry Business writing day years ago and filed it away and forgot it. It is humorous but in a dark way: In a past life, I have been the clown’s wife, supportive to the level of self-annihilation. So this is a poem to some extent about an earlier version of me; it addresses infidelity, revenge, self awareness.  Enjoy.


The Clown’s Wife

During the honeymoon she was happy
to lay his clothes out for him: jacket wide enough
for two families to live in, trousers designed
for a bigger man, bright braces for keeping up
appearances. On their first anniversary they cut up
bucketsful of confetti together so he could make a bride
of any woman with a front row seat. Eventually,
he trusted her to put the water in his buttonhole,
pick his nose, polish his horn, bake custard tarts.
She washed his car, fuelled his vanity, inflated his ego.
She became The Incredible Disappearing Woman,
decided to try stepping into his shoes, each one
a flipping barge. She set sail on a sea of sabotage,
mixed up pots with his face in, swapped their labels
with the vanishing cream. He was last seen
disappearing into the Big Top. That was the day
she finally gave him the chop.

Rachel Davies

Annual Review and Bee Tattoo

Poetry, PhD and life have been in pleasant harmony this week. I’m starting with poetry, because that’s always the best bit.

On Sunday I went with Hilary to Sheffield for the Poetry Business writing day. It was unusual for it to be held on a Sunday; they are normally on the last Saturday of the month, but Ann and Peter Sansom are so busy at the moment, they had to fit the June writing day into its own space. Which meant there weren’t as many poets there as there normally are either, and that was nice. In the morning, about ten of us were writing to Peter and Ann’s prompts in a relaxed learning space. It was lovely. In the afternoon a writing workshop for poems we had brought with us, or one written up from the morning, feedback given in a very positive and supportive environment. I love these days, always come away with two or three embryonic poems to work on at home. The next Writing Day is July 29th, details here:

Monday saw me in my office sorting out an entry for the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition. This is organised by Rachel Mann, poet in residence. I met Rachel when we were doing our MA together at Manchester Met’s Writing School and we’ve been friends ever since, so this is one competition I like to support. It is for poetry of a religious or spiritual nature, broadly interpreted. I don’t do religion, but anyone who writes poetry knows every now and again a spiritual poem will write itself, so I sent off two. I don’t think they’re winners, but they’ll do their best.

I also started to draft my annual review student’s report. I have arranged a meeting with Michael Symmons Roberts on Thursday of this coming week for the review interview. It all has to be arranged online through MMU’s Skillsforge programme; I completed the form with details of the meeting, signed it off. It had to wait for Michael’s virtual signature before the online report form could be generated for my personal reflection on the year. Michael isn’t the speediest responder to emails, so I thought I’d better knock on with drafting my report in line with last year’s form so when the form was generated it would be a cut and paste job. It was. At last the form was generated on Friday, so I did that cut and paste job on Saturday morning, all ready for my meeting with Michael on Thursday. Job done.

On Monday afternoon I spent a couple of hours giving the bedroom a damned good clean. I even hoovered the roof beams. I checked my lovely new Apple watch and it had recorded 3 minutes of exercise out of my 30 minute target. Three minutes! I worked harder on that job than I do at the gym. On Tuesday I had a couple of hours tidying my desk, putting books away, shredding paper; 2 minutes exercise recorded! What have you got to do to convince Apple Watch you’re working out?

On Tuesday evening it was East Manchester and Tameside Stanza at the Britannia Inn in Mossley. We had a writing workshop this month. Three of us took writing activities for the group to write to. Weirdly, Hilary and I had both prepared the same activity–we hadn’t spoken to each other about it. We even had the same poems as examples and prompts! Twins from other mothers! Thankfully, Hilary had taken two activities so she had a back-up. I wasn’t so smart. So, we had an activity from Pat about playing Jacks–do you remember that childhood game? I (and Hilary) took an activity around the ‘golden shovel’–google it to learn more. Hilary took an activity based on metaphors in names. We wrote to the prompts then shared our burgeoning poems at the end of the evening. A good night altogether. Only five members, but very pleasant and productive.

Wednesday was the third session of the ‘Writing Up Writing Down’ course. The first, warm up, activity was to see our thesis as a metaphor and write to that metaphor to show how we were doing. People variously chose a long run, a long walk, a box that stuff is put into, a garden. I saw mine as a piece of embroidery: it started with Binca (the primary school teachers among you will know what I’m talking about) and is progressing to fine linen, silks and a sewing ring. I concluded it will never be the Bayeux Tapestry, but it will make a passable sampler; and after all, that’s enough. We then spent an hour or so discussing a piece of our thesis that we’d taken with us, the piece we are committed to completing by the end of the course. I was paired with Mary, who is doing research into ‘film as fabric’; we read and discussed each other’s piece. She said she found my writing interesting and good to read, that it flowed well. I wished she was my supervisor!

Afterwards, I went into the Black Ladd for a couple of hours to do the books; at least to do the most pressing parts of the books that I could fit into a couple of hours. After an early evening meal, Hilary and David collected us and we all went to Didsbury for Michael Connelly’s ‘The Other’ reading. Michael pairs poets/writers who want to read and the pair reads each other’s work. I was paired with Michael himself. He kicked off the evening with a reading of four of my poems, poems that hadn’t seen the light of day for some time, so it was nice to hear them read again. I then read four of Michael’s. If you know Michael Connelly’s work, you will know that his poetry is a tad bizarre: surreal and unsettling. The poems I read are all fairly new, I think, revolved around various aspects of the seaside and were also unusual. My favourite line was ‘with a mouth like dropped lasagne’ or something like that. I liked it so much I repeated the line. I love a surprise in a poem.

On Thursday I met Rachel Mann in ProperTea for a catch-up. Rachel’s just starting a three month sabbatical from her job as vicar of St Nicholas church in Burnage. She has just submitted her PhD thesis, lucky woman. It will be brilliant because Rachel is brilliant; she is also an academic, studied philosophy at under-grad level, so acadamese is her second language. And she is a fine poet, so I know the creative element will be excellent. We had a long chat about PhD and how mine is going. She’s lovely, Rach. She said she knew I’d be fine because I’m a worker and I’ll do what I have to to succeed. I’ll certainly do what I have to, but at the end of the process it’s down to the examiner, and he might not think so. Crystal ball, anyone?

Friday I spent too long in bed in the early morning writing up the poems from Sunday’s Poetry Business day and submitting some poems to The Interpreters House. (I found out later that I wasn’t eligible to send them because I was in TIH only two publications ago; you have to wait for three to lapse. So I sent them straight out to Obsessed With Pipework instead!) At 8.00 a.m. I remembered Rosie Parker’s visit to the vet for 9 o’clock for her annual check and vaccinations, so it was a mad rush then to get ready and get her there on time. I met Amie in the vet’s. She was there for Sonny’s booster injections. You meet your daughters in such unusual places!

On Friday afternoon I had an extreme batch-cook. Someone left the freezer door slightly open and everything inside was thawed out. So I had to try to save as much as possible. In order to refreeze it all, I had to cook it first; so I have now got a freezer full of pasta sauces, curries, savoury mince, stews etc. It’ll save me cooking for a couple of weeks or so, anyway.

Saturday was a brilliant day, the start of my seventieth birthday celebrations. Number 1 son, Richard and his friend Ray, took me into Manchester for lunch. We ate at a little Italian restaurant in Exchange Square. Lunch involved two crisp chilled glasses of novocaine, because at 3.00 I had an appointment booked for my birthday tattoo. This is my first tattoo, the Manchester worker bee. I needed a glass of wine to calm the nerves. A young woman in the waiting room was intrigued that I was having my first tattoo at 70–she couldn’t believe I’m 70 and she admired my plum coloured Doc Martins–so she waited until I’d had it done to see it and make sure I was OK. But it was fine, just a slight discomfort, nothing painful at all. Here are some photos of the event:

IMG_1688      IMG_1686   IMG_1687

IMG_1690   IMG_1691

My birthday isn’t for another two weeks. So far, it’s going really well!

I’m leaving you with a poem I wrote from Hilary’s naming activity on Tuesday. It’s one for the portfolio, but very early draft. It came to me in rhyming couplets, which is unusual, but I quite like the contrasts in it. Enjoy:

Her Name

is October sunshine burning through cloud
or god-growling thunder, a moor-grime shroud

a coin in my pocket, a fashion trend
or a byword for Beelzebub’s latest girlfriend

morning breaking after a heavy night
or Godzilla’s sister, a vampire bite

dill pickle, strawberries, a chocolate shake
or hemlock—Paraquat is her namesake

gentle as a dandelion clock, a kitten’s paw
or a diligent kipper-bone stuck in the craw

the good in the world and all the world’s shame
is printed indelibly behind her name.


Rachel Davies
June 2017