Travelling that divergent path…

Yesterday I met some poet friends who started their PhD at the same time as me: we were on the same induction programme two years ago. It was good to see them, because PhD can be a lonely journey: you plough your own furrow and the more you plough, the bigger the field seems to get. You work away on your own research, and it takes you where it will: there are productive routes and there are interesting but diverting side paths. And then, suddenly and surprisingly, you reach a place where ‘two roads diverge’, as Robert Frost said, and you decide to take ‘the road less travelled’, because that is the requirement of PhD: an ‘original contribution to knowledge’. That sounds such a daunting phrase at the outset: if it is an original contribution, how will you discover it among all the existing knowledge you’re researching. But the phrase needs bringing down to size: you aren’t looking for a new knowledge system, just a new slant on an already huge body of human experience. For me, the lightbulb moment came in reading Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in the summer. That’s when I found my ‘road less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.’ It was reassuring to hear that the experience of friends mirrors my own: we are all searching for our own way out of those woods.

This week I had a meeting with my support team for the critical aspect, so I concentrated on the creative aspect of the PhD at the start of the week. This is my favourite kind of work; it constitutes about 75% of the thesis and yet it gets the smaller share of my time while I knock the 25% that is the critical aspect into submission. So it was good to spend time on just writing poetry. I prepared plans for three short sequences of poems; one is a single event viewed from multiple perspectives. My intention for that one is to give a voice to everyone involved in the event, even the dog. I also prepared a plan for a series of poems about women who might have been my mother: thank you to Kim Moore for that idea; and one directly related to mirror theory, about all the mirrors held up to me as a child to provide opportunities for me to become ‘me’; or, conversely, to allow me to develop the masks that became the multiple faces of me that enabled me to negotiate my place in the world. I even wrote a couple of poems for the first sequence, one of them fulfilling the ‘syllabics’ framework I talked about with Jean. Unfortunately, it’s another nonet, about which more later. I must get beyond this little nine-line wonder, but I do find nonets very satisfying to write.

On Tuesday I went to MMU to meet Antony and Angelica, my support team for the critical aspect, to discuss my ideas for a ‘masks and mirrors’ focus on the work. I had sent them a piece to whet their appetites a couple of weeks ago, explaining that it was just to show them where my thoughts were leading, that there was an authoritative theoretical base for said focus. None-the-less, they were concerned that I was getting bogged down in the theory, and that, with only 20,000 words to play with I needed to get straight in with the analysis of the poetry and bring the theory into that rather than dedicate space to the theory on its own. I’m happy with that. They also asked, was I changing direction from the ‘mother-daughter’ theme into something completely different at this late stage: that wouldn’t be acceptable. Good God, no! Absolutely not; I’m planning to examine the mother-daughter theme through a focus on masks and mirrors. They were happy with that and thought the focus could be a good idea, a good way to bring a huge body of work down to manageable size. Yes, that’s what I’d hoped for. I’d also sent them the review I wrote for The North as a taster of where I was going with the Petit analysis. Interestingly, one of the parts they liked most about it was the inter-textual bit about Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’: Antony thought I could have developed that idea in much more depth. This was one of the ‘academic’ bits I toned down in the review, on the request of the editors! Different strokes for different folks! Antony asked me to send him the sections on the sonnet and the Selima Hill analysis that I’d revisited following our last meeting in the summer; I sent it, on the understanding that the Hill section would be redrafted now to some extent in the light of the ‘masks and mirrors’ focus. There is lots of useful stuff in ‘My Sister’s Sister’, on masks in particular; redrafting it won’t be a huge problem. So, altogether it was a productive meeting and I came away feeling good about my work and I actually felt as if the end might be in sight.

After the meeting Antony sent me an example of a creative-critical PhD thesis that might give me some insight into the process of writing it. It was, he said, nothing like my own work, but the style of the writing might be helpful for me. I read it in bed on Tuesday night. It was a PhD from Edgehill University, so it had a heavy emphasis on poetics, which is an Edgehill creative writing interest: I know this because a friend has just completed her MA in Creative Writing from Edgehill. So the thesis was quite avant garde in it’s approach; but it was a useful read, because a large part of it wasn’t really prose at all, but a fairly staccato series of reflections, a list in single sentences. It was food for thought, though, that the thesis can be what you want it to be, that it doesn’t have to follow academic rules. This is reassuring to one who has struggled to become fluent in acadamese.

On Saturday it was the Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. James Sheard ran a poetry workshop in the morning: it was interesting because we didn’t actually do much writing, but we did a great deal of discussing ideas. The theme of the discussion was ‘the territory of the poem’: territory in terms of ‘place’ but also the psychological territory explored in poetry. I found this useful. The piece of writing we were asked to do as a culmination of the disucussion was focussed on a particular place we visit regularly in our poems; we had to make notes on the place in terms of its concrete elements that make it real. I chose Lillingstone Dayrell churchyard, where my brother is buried. My brother’s death was a huge event for me when I was fourteen; he was just seventeen. I began by thinking about the churchyard, the yew trees, the gravestones, the situation of the church surrounded by fields, the church itself, its Norman origins, its huge wooden door which is never locked, the cold discomfort of it. And then the thought popped up that it was here ‘I came face to face with God and I turned my back’. Wow. It’s true, this was when I became an atheist; at my brother’s funeral, when they put his coffin in the ground and threw soil onto it. How could a beneficent god allow that? There is the skeleton of a poem in that thought alone. So it was a productive morning all round.

The afternoon event involved music from students of Chetham’s School in Manchester: so young, but so much talent. There were two string quartets, one played to start the event, the second opened after the break. They were wonderful. The poetry readings were by Rebecca Hurst, Kayo Chingonyi and James Sheard. As usual it was a wonderfully uplifting event: poetry and music in the south gallery; and the green parakeets in the trees of Whitworth Park through the huge windows. Fantastic.

It’s been a productive and positive week. Oh yes!

I’ll leave you with another nonet: I promise I’ll break the habit soon. This is a response to a longer poem, ‘Not good enough for sainthood’, that I wrote from another perspective, the sister’s, on the same event. It is part of the sequence of multiple viewpoints for the same event, the untimely death of a young man, my brother. This nonet is written in his voice; it doesn’t stand alone particularly well, perhaps, but it works in the context of the sequence, I think.


I didn’t ask for sainthood

 …truth is, it hijacked me that summer
out in the fields, helping strong men
harvest hay; gut wrenching pain,
theatre, surgeons, counting
to ten backwards then
the eternal dream.
I much preferred

Rachel Davies
November 2017


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