Monthly Archives: September 2017

Year three of three…

There, I’ve done it. I’ve registered for year 3 of the PhD. Two down, one to go. There were times (moments) at the end of year one/beginning of year 2 when I considered pulling the plug. It all seemed too hard. And it is. And it should be. I really thought it was beyond me; and what do I need a PhD for anyway? In a sense it’s a vanity project: a personal challenge to prove to myself I can do it. In those moments, with thoughts of quitting, I was convincing myself I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I can’t. I won’t know until it’s all done and I’m a success or not. But what I do know about myself is, I’m not a quitter. I persevered and here I am at the start of year 3 of 3. Once I relaxed and saw this as a journey and not a destination I started to really enjoy it. A good friend had her viva this week and she has attained her PhD. I am thrilled for her; although I always knew she would be successful. I genuinely don’t know if that success will ever be mine. But I have enjoyed the work and learned a lot: about the psychology of mothers and daughters; about the poetry of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit; about Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop; about the sonnet; and about myself. Obviously, I hope I’ll come out of this with a PhD; but if I don’t I’ll know I gave it my best shot. I also learned that when this is over, I’ll never pick up another book in anger. I’m done with study. Best-seller list for me after that viva next year!

This week I’ve been back in the swing of things after the holiday. Holiday? What holiday. It seems so long ago, I’ve forgotten it already. Real life has resumed itself. I have been researching the psychology of masks. I did an online MMU library search and up came loads of references for ‘masks’; but most of them seemed to be to do with computer technology. I have no idea what masks are in computer-speak but there are hundreds of academic articles about them. In amongst them—I didn’t give up looking—there were a couple of articles on the psychology of masks in a human context: the human masks, real and imagined, that we wear in everyday life. There were also a couple of promising books on the subject. I downloaded the articles and put the books on hold. I decided to read the articles to see if they give me what I’m looking for and then spend a day in the library checking out the books. The articles were just what I needed, so this week I’ll be in the library bright and early on Tuesday working with the books.

It’s been a good week on the poetry front too. I heard in the week that my poem ‘Chiggy Pig’ was ‘Commended’ in the Battered Moons poetry competition. This was a poem I wrote to one of Penny Sharman’s activities on our Bitch Week in Anglesey earlier in the year: to write a poem about a small creature. I chose the woodlouse because they fascinate me; and I always loved working with them in those ‘mini-beast’ projects we used to do with children in primary schools. When I drafted the poem, it was called simply ‘Woodlouse’. I took it to the Monday workshop at Leaf on Portland St. for feedback. They loved it but were puzzled by the last line: ‘fourteen jointed little porker’. I explained that we used to call woodlice piggies when I was a kid; Rosie Garland remembered then that they used to call them ‘chiggy pigs’ in her childhood in the west country. ‘Chiggy pig’ was too good a title to pass up, thank you, Rosie. I’ve booked train tickets and hotel for Bill and me to go down to Swindon for the presentation event on October 7th. It cost about nine times my prize money for the overnight stay and travel; but I help to organise the Poets&Players competition in Manchester and we really appreciate it when people turn up to read at the presentation event. It means a lot, feels like reward for the hard work of mounting the competition in the first place. So I will be there a week on Saturday introducing ‘Chiggy Pig’ to the audience.

I also heard that a selection of my mother/daughter poems—including the sonnet crown—has been long-listed for the Overton Prize; short-listing is in early October, so keep your fingers crossed for me, because this is one competition I really would like to progress in. And I have almost agreed an acceptance for the review of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in a ‘quality poetry magazine’; I’ll tell you which one when it is finally accepted. I won’t entertain even a thought that it won’t be. The deadline for submitting that review is also early October, so I’ll be working on that later today. It’ll put me well on my way for the Pascale Petit section of the thesis too. All good. Watch this space. This has all made me more determined to submit work more regularly. I’m a bit of a sluggard in this side of the work, but when I do submit I’m often more or less successful. I need to organise myself more.

My copies of The North, Rialto, PN Review and Magma came in the post. Lovely to see poet friends represented in these magazines. I’ve had only cursory reads up to now, checked out the work of poets I know personally; but there is a lot of reading in them for the coming months. I also received a ‘Magma’ tote bag in the post. Apparently, they messed up my subscription and sent the bag as compensation. I hadn’t noticed there had been an issue, so the tote bag was a complete and very pleasant surprise.

This week back from holiday has been a busy week in other ways too. My job keeping the books at my daughter Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd, has been a bigger-than-normal job this week with three weeks worth of work to make up after the holiday. It took up a long day on Wednesday and still not quite finished; but I’ll be up to date again this week. I also went to the Christie with her on Monday, where she is being monitored after surgery in 2014 for malignant melanoma. I’m pleased to say she is progressing well and it was all very positive feedback. Long may the positivity continue.

And friends. I met up with Hilary for a post-holiday catch-up on Tuesday. She has submitted her MA portfolio this week; three years of her life coming to a satisfactory conclusion. She’s off on a long celebratory holiday in October to places that include Bali, Australia, Tasmania, Singapore. I’m only a little bit jealous. And yesterday I met up in Manchester with Pauline, a friend from my school days. We became friends in the first term of grammar school; 59 years ago! How can that even be possible? We both suffered the ire of the demon head-teacher and every time we meet up we remember new and forgotten indignities at his hands. I think I’ve told you it’s down to him that I keep pursuing these qualifications? He told me the day I left school that I’d end up in the gutter for the unforgivable sin of talking to a boy from the secondary modern school. These were his parting words to me, a sixteen year old with low self confidence. I seem to have spent a lifetime negating that one remark. He’s long-dead now: I hope he’s keeping nice and warm!

So, here I am at the start of the final year of PhD. I began this blog to see how the work would fit into my busy life style: I think I’m doing OK. I’ll be buckling down and getting the work completed this year: I want it finished in first draft by about May next year to give me time for redrafting, editing, perfecting. It’s hard to believe it’s the third year already: it seemed so far away when I began. Ho hum. Tempus just keeps on fuging, as Reggie Perrin used to say.

I’m giving you two more verses of the poem I wrote on holiday, inspired by my travelling companions on the plane to Zakinthos. It’s still not finished, but I like where it’s going and I think it will find space in the portfolio. Enjoy.


 For I don’t deserve to die with these people

this mum has no sense of irony
for she feeds her girls Kwells—tells
them from a mouth wide as the Mersey tunnel,
tells them from a mouth that could have been
the prototype for the megaphone to
chew and swallow, chew and swallow
then administers copious doses
of fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away;

this mum asks if her darling girl
can have my window seat
and spits curare-tipped eye darts
when I say no; for when she grinds down
another traveller and the girl
sits in the window seat
smug as a lugworm,
she promptly pulls down the blind
on the remaining air-miles;

Rachel Davies
August 2017

In which I realise I can’t do everything…

I’m suffering the post-holiday blues. I haven’t been warm since I got home, although if I hadn’t been away the weather would seem quite mild for Saddleworth. And my body hasn’t adjusted to the time zone change, I’m still working on Greek time so I’m ready for bed at 9.00 at night and sleeping for England, which is unusual for me. I’m doing that post-holiday thing where you say ‘this time last week…’ I need to get a grip; but this time last week we were getting ready to go and find some loggerhead turtles, Caretta Caretta.We boarded the boat in a harbour just off Laganas. Searching for turtles seemed to involve the boat going round and round in circles in the harbour, along with about five other boats, until we actually spotted a turtle in the water; poor thing must have been a bit intimidated but I suppose they must be used to it. It was a majestic sight when we did spot one though. They really need to rethink their survival strategy though. They come to Zakinthos in April and stay till October. In that time the female can lay four or five batches of eggs, 100 in a batch. That’s up to 500 eggs, with a survival rate of 1%. That is serious endangerment. They are very well protected by the Zakinthian authorities though. We went to Turtle Island to see the breeding grounds on the beach: we weren’t allowed to go near the nests, but you could clearly see the tripods marking and protecting the nests from the boat.

But as you know by now, a holiday isn’t just a holiday; it involves work as well. Every morning I got up early and took a cuppa out to our balcony to do some work. I spent a couple of hours a morning analysing the poems in Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica. I analysed three or four poems in that time; and that is about as many as I could manage emotionally. They are very taxing poems to close read. It is a brilliant collection, similar but different from The Huntress. It is amazing how much more you see in a poem when you spend quality time with it. I am happy to report I completed the analyses on our last morning there. And now I have 17,500 words to draw on for the chapter in my thesis. So I’m pleased with that aspect of the work while I was away. A slightly optimistic conclusion to the analyses: I have sent out feelers for offering a review of Mama to a quality magazine—I won’t say which one at this stage, don’t want someone stealing my thunder; because I had a fairly positive response to my proposal. I’ll be following that up this week. The creative aspect, less satisfying: I wanted to write a poem a day while I was away and I didn’t manage anything close to that. My favourite time, early morning, was taken up with the analyses; and I don’t work well around lots of people and busyness; but I did draft some stuff—I can’t call them poems yet—and I kept my dream journal going for the fortnight. I seemed to dream a lot of dreams with ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers’ as elements. Am I regressing to a past life? I hope not; retirement is the best job I’ve ever had!

We arrived back in Manchester on Thursday evening and my lovely daughter was there to meet us off the plane. Since then it has been a long round of unpacking, laundry, shopping for food. And more PhD work. Yesterday was the September Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery: Clare Shaw, Malika Booker and Hilda Sheehan, and Olivia Moore providing the ‘player’ aspect. Unfortunately I didn’t make it: I always knew it was going to be a struggle and in the event I prioritised work; but I know it was brilliant because people keep telling me so on Facebook; I was genuinely sorry to miss it. The next event is in October, details here:

It’s our annual collaboration with Manchester Literature Festival and it will be BIG. George Szirtes, Caroline Bird and Andchuck providing the music. This event is at Halle St Peter’s in the Northern Quarter, so make a note of that; also that you will need tickets for this one, available at the MLF website via the link. Unfortunately I have to miss this event too, bah! But you just know it will be good, don’t you?

Yesterday I got down to more serious work on the critical side of the PhD. I was rereading the theory related to mirrors and mirror images. Lacan’s Mirror Stage is not easy to understand: Lacan is not an accessible writer; but mirrors and masks feature heavily in Mama Amazonica and this will be a major focus for the Petit section of the thesis. So I reread and re-reread Lacan yesterday; along with commentaries on Lacan: The Cambridge Companion to Lacan; Bailly’s Beginners Guide to Lacan etc, and I think I have a handle on his thoughts. I think. I also read Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From; and an article I found on the MMU website about the importance of positive interaction in healthy child development, “Identification and subjectivity in a Year-3 classroom: using Lacan’s mirror stage to analyse ethnographic data” by Sue Walters published in the online journal “Ethnography and Education Volume 9, 2014 – Issue 1”. This was fascinating reading for me on two counts: it was helpful to my research; but it also spoke to me as an ex-headteacher of a primary school with high numbers of Bangladeshi heritage pupils.


So, I know what I want to say in the Petit section of the thesis but I’m worried, as ever, about sounding ‘academic’ enough; about sounding as if I actually have a level of authority over the theory. I have no idea how I will go about it; so I’ll do what I always do and wade in, a page at a time and perfect it over time.


That’s it then; holiday over, week over, blog over. I’m happy to be back and to be back on a healthy eating regime. I had a lovely time away; but it is the once-a-year binge. I’m actually glad I don’t have to live like that all year; I’d be elephantine after a couple of months.

Here is a very short poem I wrote on the aeroplane on the way to Zakinthos. It seems as if the aeroplane is stationary at 35,000 feet and it is the earth scrolling by below. That is the image I’ve tried to capture in this little draft.


Window Seat

the aeroplane hangs from sky
hovering like a harrier
while Earth on microfiche
scrolls by below

the pilot spots the quarry
of Zakinthos runway
and we start our slow dive
from sky to sun

Rachel Davies
September 201

Holidays, analyses and anxiety dreams

I wondered when I started the PhD whether those enjoyable and, until now, indispensible, parts of my life would have to go by the board to make room for the research. I have proved that, actually, they don’t. I have taken several holidays since I’ve been doing the PhD; some of them have been work related: poetry writing weeks that have served the creative aspect of the research. But some have been just holidays; just the chance to sit back and rebuild. I have never left the work at home and ignored it for a week or two. Let’s face it, it won’t be ignored.

This week I’ve been in Zakinthos on the ultimate sun-bum’s holiday. The work sulked so much when I told it I was going on holiday, I smuggled it into my cabin baggage and brought it with me. Of course, I never ever intended to leave it home alone; but it didn’t know that, and I’m hoping it will be kinder to my as a result of my generosity.

So, among the sun worshipping, the Greek salads, the yogurt and honey, the Mythos, the local wines there has also been work. And, I have to say, quite a smug-making lot of it. Before I came away, I promised myself I would write a poem a day while I was away. I downloaded several prompt books to my Kindle to keep me focussed. I have to report, I probably haven’t managed a poem a day; but in response to one prompt, I have been keeping a dream journal. I have had some weird dreams since I’ve been here. One of them relates to the broken promise of a poem a day: I was invited by a teacher I worked with years ago to go into his classroom and read poems to his class of 8/9-year-olds. There were other poets there to read, we all had a ‘slot’. I was first to read; unfortunately I had left the poem I wanted to read at home; and I couldn’t remember it at all. One little girl in the group had copied my poem out in her writing book and she lent it to me; but writing wasn’t her strength, and it was really hard to read what she had written; so I blagged. I tried to make it up as I went along. Alice Oswald was like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder: why wouldn’t you remember the poem? You wrote it! The only lines I can remember were the first line: Write ‘the’ and part of a limerick that came at the end: They called him Max the Tax. Not much of a poem then; not even poetry! But I took so long making it up, I took every other poet’s slot of time too. Anxiety dream, definitely. I must write more poems, as per my promise to self.

However, I have drafted about four poems since I’ve been out here, and I think the dream journal will stimulate more unusual ones. So I’m not slacking really. I’ll post a poem at the end of this blog that relates directly to the ‘poem’ dream. I can already see where I’ll change it, but I like the idea.

In other news, regarding the critical element, I have been very conscientious. I made myself the promise to work for two hours a day before breakfast to analyse the Pascale Petit poetry in Mama Amazonica. That is a promise I have kept, rigorously and satisfyingly. I have analysed all but thirteen poems in the collection. That gives me 3-4 a day for the rest of my time here to get the job done. I have found that about four a day is as many as I can do: they are quite gruelling, dealing with rape, abuse, mental illness. Petit approaches these themes by placing them in the backdrop of the Amazonian rain forest. They are brilliant. The mother is written as beautiful, abused creatures: the hummingbird, the deer. She is often predatory in her response to abuse, so she is jaguar, fossa, python, boa. The abusive father/husband is almost always a cockroach—‘Cockie’; sometimes other low, unattractive creatures, in one instance a ‘screw-worm’; which all seem descriptively appropriate. I will definitely have fulfilled that promise-to-self by the time I board the plane home on Thursday. And so far I have 12,500 words; not all words I’ll be using in the chapter, but they’re there to be cut-and-pasted, along with the analyses I did of The Huntress. So I feel I’m making real headway with the critical aspect while I’m out here, and putting myself in a strong position to start writing the Petit chapter when I get home.

There, you see, you can allow yourself holidays while you pursue PhD. You just have to be prepared to take it along for the ride: it doesn’t cost extra, as a child would do; and mostly it behaves itself without annoying other holiday makers with its noise, unlike some children (see last week’s blog)! In the hours between breakfast and drafting poems on the sunbed I have enjoyed all the aspects of ‘holiday’. I have played boules on the beach every day with Bill; the beach here is lovely soft sand, unlike a lot of Greek beaches there is no shingle. So it’s a good boules surface. It helps us believe we’re not just beach bums. We’ve also played mini-golf a couple of times. The first time I beat Bill, who is a regular golfer at home. That didn’t go down too well, it stung a bit; but yesterday he beat me quite comprehensively to put me back firmly in my place. I enjoyed the crowing while it lasted, though. We have been walking, stopping off at a lovely beach bar for pizza and draft Mythos on the way back to the hotel. And, of course, we’ve been swimming. I’m not a huge fan of swimming, I learned as a young adult, not as a water baby. I learned, actually, in the nurses’ home swimming pool when I was a student nurse in the sixties. A gorgeous doctor taught me to swim; I only did it because I needed to look competent in his eyes. We weren’t an ‘item’, but I fancied the pants off him. Years later I saw him again when my son Richard broke his arm. The gorgeous doctor of my teen years and my memory was actually a disappointment: shorter than I imagined, balding and gaining a paunch. But he did teach me to swim and I’m grateful for it. I’ve never been a particularly confident swimmer, although I love that I can swim; and as long as my feet touch the floor when I stop, I’m happy.

Oops, I must dash: I’m taking a boat trip to see the Zakinthian turtles later today. Life’s just so full, I don’t know how I fit it all in.

Here’s the poem I wrote as a response to the anxiety dream I had in the week. It has a long way to go, but I wrote it following Jean Sprackland’s advice to write more poems in a syllabic form. This one is a (double) nonet: nine lines, nine syllables in the first line reducing to one in the ninth. I think I’ll retain the form and redraft some of the content; but it does show that I am making an effort; honest!


In this life I’m a double nonet

In a past life I was a sonnet.
I tripped off the quill in inky
magnificence, perfect in
first draft. There was nothing
slant about my rhymes,
they were bold, strong,
on the


I used to be a sonnet, fourteen
lines of perfect Shakespearean
rhyme, a turn at line nine. But
the life was edited
from the first draft and
now I’m doggerel,
clichéd crap.




Rachel Davies
September 2017


Oscar, if I’ve told you once…

I’m not sure if you’ll all get to read this this week. My laptop isn’t recognising the IonianWifi I paid 25Euros for earlier in the week! I’m writing it on Word, hoping I might be able to post it on the hotel Wi-Fi later. Yes, I’m in glorious Zakinthos, soaking up some rays, eating ridiculously unhealthily and drinking too much Mythos and local wine. I’m having weird, dystopic dreams about punishments for unhealthy eating that may indeed become a poem one day soon.

We travelled on Thursday. All experience is grist to the mill of the poet, and our travel companions were no exception. Indulgent parents, aggressive parents, parents with no sense of their own irony when they fed nasty tasting Kwells to their children, ordered them to ‘chew and swallow, chew and swallow’ then plied them with fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away. Beware! All these things have been recorded in a poem, an extract of which I’ll include at the end of this blog post.

It seems a long time ago, and the whole distance of Europe, but other poetry events figured in the week since my last blog post. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street in Manchester. I met Hilary Robinson for an early evening meal before the workshop because I have been reading her MA portfolio prior to submission later this month and we met up so that I could feedback my reflections on a good collection. There were only five poets at the workshop this time, but oh my, there was some lovely work presented for discussion/feedback. I took a poem about my mother’s hands that I wrote from a prompt in the Behn/Twichell book (see below). I’m really pleased with it and it received some useful and positive feedback.

On Tuesday it was our East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting. We meet at the Britannia Inn in Mossley. Again, there were five poets there, a different set from Monday’s. We were reading and discussing the work of Gwen Harwood, an Australian poet writing from mid-twentieth century. I don’t know if you know her work, but she’s worth checking out. I can’t give a web link to any of her poetry right now, but if you do seek her out, avoid the Poem Hunter website because it has messed with the formatting of the work, sometimes even displacing stanzas into the wrong poems. Thankfully a couple of the poets present had her collected works and we were able to rectify the errors; although they made good stimulus for discussion. My favourite quote from the poetry we read on Tuesday: ‘Poets are lovers. Critics are/mean, solitary masturbators.’ (From her poem “The Critic’s Nightwatch”).

On the Wednesday before we travelled I had a surprise in the post: a birthday parcel of books from a friend I haven’t heard from for some time. There was a lovely photographic book of cats; and two more poetry prompt books. One was by Peter Sansom, an extension of his Poetry Business writing days. I can’t remember the author/poet of the second prompt book as I didn’t bring them away with me; but I’m thinking I’ve probably got more than enough writing stimuli to complete the creative side of the thesis now. That will be a huge aspect of my work this year, so all assistance is gratefully received.

Being on holiday doesn’t exclude work: I’ve brought work with me. I’ve promised myself a poem a day while I’m our here, and so far so good. The prompt books I added to my Kindle before I came have proved worthwhile. There are some particularly good prompts in The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. They offer a prompt for every day of the year; some are related to the day, anniversaries of events (mostly American), but some are random and can be used in any order. Another good prompt book is Robin Behn’s and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry. I think I mentioned this one before. It has writing activities by practicing poets who also teach creative writing. One of the activities is to keep a dream journal: no embellishments, just write down what you can actually remember and see where your unconscious takes you. That’s why I was up at 3.00 a.m. this morning writing down my weird unhealthy-eating dream.

I also brought Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica away with me. I’ve been spending two hours a day before breakfast analysing these poems for the mother-daughter theme. They are different from The Huntress: less anger and fear, more sympathetic. Interesting comparisons, though. I’m finding some inter-textual writing too, notably a perceived (by me) link to Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ in the image of the shattering mirror. I’m loving this analysis. It hardly feels like work at all.

So, my poem this week. I’m just giving you an extract. It’s a rant at the not-very-nice people who shared space in the aeroplane. I’ve called it ‘For I don’t deserve to die with these people’ for fairly obvious reasons. I’m giving you the last of four stanzas. It was a constant commentary on the flight: three and a half hours of Oscar being told. I didn’t see Oscar or his mother; but I built up my own mental pictures! I apologise in advance if you know Oscar and his mum. You’ll have to imagine more of similar in the other stanzas. The poem is so new, the ink hasn’t dried on it yet.


For I don’t deserve to die with these people

 this mum says Oscar I’ve told you
says Oscar I’ve told you once
says Oscar if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million
says Oscar I won’t tell you again
says Oscar if I have to tell you again I’m taking you home.
How? How is she taking him home?
We’re cruising, as the pilot has just assured us,
at thirty-five-thousand-feet.
Oscar, I’m sick of telling you
Oscar don’t make me tell you again
Oscar for the love of God

 I utter my own prayer: Dear Lord, keep this aeroplane safe
for I do not deserve to die with these people.

Rachel Davies
September 2017