Monthly Archives: February 2018

Trains and Golden Shovels

It’s 6.00 a.m. and I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham. I’m here for the Verve Poetry Festival. It’s the end of a very good week. I’ve been so busy I haven’t even fitted in a run this week. I haven’t given up on the NY resolution though, just too much else going on.

On Sunday it was dog-sitting day again: a couple of long, snowy walks. By the time we went home at 9.00 p.m. there was much snow on Saddleworth roads and a hair-raising drive home. This was worrying because on Monday we were due to travel to Glasgow and it looked as if we might be snowed in. But there was no extra snow overnight and we were taken to the station in a 4×4 car, so apart from a short delay at Piccadilly we were OK. We were in Glasgow by 1.00 p.m. We went to the Museum of Modern Art, walked to George Square, where the striking ship-workers had raised the red flag in the early twenties and had afternoon tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, the décor designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The chairs are designed for aesthetics, but not so much for comfort:

Buchanan-Street-02

Yes, that is the tops of heads you can see: the chairs are very tall and double as screens to afford some privacy to customers. We had five hours in Glasgow, so only time for a taster; we are definitely up for a weekend break at some time in the future. I had bought first class tickets on the train for Bill’s birthday: it wasn’t a first-class journey. The heating failed in our carriage—it was ‘toasty warm’ in the other carriages apparently—and we rode home togged up in coats, hats, scarves and gloves!

On Tuesday I met Hilary for coffee. We discussed the hand-stitched pamphlets we’re preparing for our reading in York on Feb 22nd. In the afternoon I spent a couple of hours processing entries for the Poets & Players competition:
https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2018-closing-date-28-february-2018/ As you can see, there are still ten days to get your entries in, so what are you waiting for?

Tuesday evening, Hilary and I went to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester for ‘A Body of Words’, a talk/reading around food and the body. Kelsie Silverstone read some poems and talked about her fund-raising commitment to ‘Beat’, an eating disorder charity. She is planning a sponsored head-shave: if you would like to support Kelsie, her Just Giving page can be found through this link: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kelsie-silverstone
Dr Angelica Michelis gave a talk about “the relationship between eating/non-eating bodies and how food, its consumption, digestion and rejection tell us stories about desire, abjection, fear and pleasure, in short – stories about our selves/ourselves.” (ref IABF website). Malika Booker read her wonderful poetry, a modern Carribbean take on Bible stories. It was an interesting and thought provoking evening.

Wednesday daytime was taken up with the accounts at the Black Ladd. Of course, it was Valentines Day. I don’t subscribe, seeing it as yet another way for consumerism to put my money into the pockets of people who don’t need it as much as I do. However, we did go out to eat, prior to seeing the live screening of RSC’s Twelfth Night at the Odeon in Oldham. Oh my, it was good. Ade Edmondson played the pompous and down-fallen Malvolio. He was impressive; but my favourite performer was Beruce Khan playing Feste. If you get chance to see it, don’t miss it, either live in Stratford or live screened to a cinema near you.

Thursday was taken up with stuff that must be done before I could come away on Friday: ironing, packing, processing competition entries, printing poems for the judge, hand-stitching pamphlets: there aren’t enough hours in a day. On Friday, Hilary and I travelled to Birmingham for Verve. On Friday evening there were fantastic poetry readings by Mir Mahfuz Ali, Sasha Dugdale and Karen McCarthy Woolf. Very different poets, but all good. The evening was chaired very efficiently, and with humour, by Jo Bell. I bought, and got signed, Mahfuz Ali’s Midnight, Dhaka a very challenging collection of poetry remembering Bangladesh’s bloody independence from Pakistan in 1971. I was particularly interested by this collection, because when I was a primary school head-teacher—1993 to 2003—my school served the Bangladeshi community in Hyde. Of course, I knew the history; but the harrowing human element, the extreme suffering of that history, is addressed in this collection.

Saturday was a full-on day. We had breakfast at the hotel then took the fifteen minute walk to Waterstones for a day of poetry at the festival. It started with a poetry breakfast, which didn’t include a second breakfast, but it did involve poetry. It was an introduction to the weekend. I had to leave after half an hour because I had a workshop booked with Karen McCarthy Woolf. This was about form, especially little known poetry forms: who has heard of the ‘gramofand’ for instance? Not me. It’s a form that makes near-anagrams of the title of a poem in the end words of its lines—I think. There is an example in McCarthy Woolf’s first collection An Aviary of Small Birds. ‘Emotions’ plays with that title throughout the poem. But mostly we were exploring the ‘golden shovel’, a form where you take a striking line from a published poem and use the words of that line as end-words of the lines of your own poem. I’ve experimented with this form before, but we studied it in more detail yesterday. We even heard a wonderful recording of Gwendolyn Brooks reading ‘The Pool Players’, the short poem that inspired Terrance Hayes to invent the form in the first place: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55678/the-golden-shovel

I had an afternoon free after the workshop so I walked around The Bullring, a mass of humanity on a Saturday afternoon, then walked back to the hotel for a brew and a glass of wine in the bar before returning to Waterstones for the evening readings by Pascale Petit, Hannah Lowe and Sandeep Parmar. Pascale read from Mama Amazonica, which was a real treat for me; Hannah Lowe impressed: she is funny and entertaining and her poetry is brilliant. She reminded me a lot of Kim Moore. I bought her collection Chan, which she signed for me. Sandeep read from her collection Eidolon, a modern retelling of the Helen of Troy myth, questioning the patriarchal interpretations of history. The Q&A session after the readings was interesting. After a short break there was another event, the Out-Spoken Press showcase, with interesting readings by ‘performance’ poets. My favourite was Bridget Minamore’s reading from her collection Titanic, reliving the breakdown of a love affair. It wasn’t all broken hearts and teardrops though; it was funny and poignant and her delivery was thoroughly entertaining. I might buy her collection today. Carribean food was served during the interval as well, compliments of the festival organisers. Well, even poets need to eat. The vegetable curry was lovely. We were so buzzed-up by poetry that it was well after midnight before we were ready for sleep.

And here I am, awake at 6.00 a.m. writing all about it. You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned PhD once in this blog post. That’s because I haven’t been able to fit it in anywhere, except inside my head. It is a constant psychological presence, and the notes I took from last night’s Q&A session, particularly Pascale Petit’s responses, were all with that in mind. I promise it will feature more next week, by hook or crook.

Here’s a poem, a ‘golden shovel’ I wrote for Carrie Etter’s NaPoWriMo last April—she’s planning another event for this April if you’re a poet and you’re on Facebook and you fancy it. My ‘shovel’ takes that famous opening line from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Morning Song’ and uses the words of that line as the end words of the lines of my poem ‘Making Cakes’. After yesterday’s workshop, it would probably be a different poem, but it was my first ‘golden shovel’. I’ll try harder in future, I promise.

 

Making Cakes
after Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’

When I think of you baking, it’s about love—
the way you lay out your ingredients, set
out bowls and spoons before you begin. You
work in your own way, no recipe, say going
to a recipe book is a waste of time—shortcuts like
weighing eggs, then equal measures of butter, sugar, flour: a
perfect Victoria sponge, this is your way. Your cakes are fat
monuments to Demeter, spread with jam and that gold
impersonator, buttercream. I’ll just pull up a chair to watch.

 

Rachel Davies
April 2017

Birthdays and Bigotry

Life, PhD and poetry: that’s what this blog aims to explore, and this week all three have had a piece of me.

It was Bill’s birthday on Monday. On Sunday we went into Oldham to see ‘Darkest Hour’ and then went for a meal after the film. Gary Oldman was indeed wonderful as Churchill. The great man wasn’t a favourite of mine: too many disastrous political decisions in his career; but he was the man for the job when Great Britain lived under the Nazi threat. And oh my, the power of words. His speeches brought tears to my eyes. A film to see for sure; and we saw it in the very room where Churchill was first chosen to represent Oldham as an MP, back in 1900. The old Town Hall is now a multiscreen Odeon cinema.

I know, I said Bill’s birthday was on Monday and we celebrated on Sunday. That’s because Monday was taken up with ‘other stuff’. I saw him for about an hour in the morning and not again until 9.00 at night. I went out for my run on Monday morning; except I didn’t run. It was sleeting quite hard so I settled for the treadmill at the gym. But it took me half an hour to drive about four miles, still only half way to the gym. The traffic was awful for some reason: perhaps there had been an incident on the M62 or something. Anyway, I got to the roundabout in Shaw, about halfway to the gym, drove all the way around the roundabout and went home again; no running. Because I had to be at Amie’s for 10.00 for a morning’s dog-sitting. I spent the morning submitting some poems to various venues. After a long dog-walk up the fairly steep lane behind Amie’s house, I left at 12.30 to collect Hilary. We were meeting Polly Atkinson in Propertea in Manchester to plan a poetry break in May.

There used to be five of us planning these poetry breaks once; but two members of the group fell away for various reasons, so now just the three of us. We eventually agreed on a holiday cottage along the east coast between Filey and Scarborough. It’s booked. We are going in May, immediately after the Poets and Players competition celebration event: we didn’t want to miss Pascale Petit. One to look forward to, then, with close access to York, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay: there’s no end to the inspiration we can find.

After the planning meeting, Hilary and I went for afternoon tea at Patisserie Valerie to use the Groupon we couldn’t use a couple of weeks ago, then we walked to Chapter One Books in the Northern Quarter for The Group. There were six of us at The Group this week, with some wonderful writing to discuss. I took ‘Alysoun’, my alternative mother poem about the Wife of Bath. It was well received. There were some brilliant poems discussed; and a further instalment of the teacher meeting her teacher in a pub. It was a good evening discussing writing with very pleasant and like-minded people.

We took the tram home to Oldham. A homeless man approached us on the platform at Victoria and asked for some change for a cup of tea. We both gave him some. I didn’t expect thanks for this, but he was very grateful. He said mental health issues had caused him to lose his home and he just wanted to be warm: it was indeed a very cold night. What I also didn’t expect, from a woman who was also waiting for the tram, was a lecture on why we shouldn’t give to ‘them’ because ‘they all’ get together at the end of the day to share the takings and then go home to their comfortable houses. Patronisingly, she suggested we were targeted because we look like a soft touch, two grey-haired old ladies who daren’t say ‘no’. I think we were targeted because he could smell the prejudice of other people there, perhaps. I tried to engage her in a conversation about charity, but bigots are difficult to reason with. So I was silently seething on the tram. It was 9.00 before I got home, and I could at last celebrate Bill’s birthday with him. I took him the cakes we didn’t eat at our afternoon tea; and a bottle of Chablis to toast his unbelievable age! Oh, and did I tell you, I’ve booked train tickets to Glasgow for Monday; with afternoon tea in the Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street. The tea rooms were designed by one of his architect heroes, Charles Rennie Macintosh, so we’ll have Monday together, albeit a week late!

On Tuesday I was back at Amie’s for dog-sitting duties. Her partner, Angus, is in Canada on a snow-boarding holiday with brothers and friends; the dogs are missing him, so I’m helping out while Amie is at work. Oh my, they are gorgeous; and energetic. I took my work with me and had a productive day on the thesis. I have doubled the word count this week. I’m still not happy with it, but I’m working on it and that’s what matters. After a long dog-walk at lunchtime, I thought again about that woman at Victoria and I got my revenge in a poem. She became the latest ‘alternative mother’ in my sequence. That poem was very cathartic: I’ll post it at the end of this blog. That kind of prejudice needs calling out.

On Wednesday morning I did go out to run. It was a lovely, bright morning, and it was light enough to go out at 7.30. But, oh my, it was cold. It was -6*C on Saddleworth. I ran along the track of the Delph Donkey again. All the puddles had thick ice on them, so at least I didn’t get muddy. But I could have had dental surgery without anaesthetic: by the time I got back to my car my face was numb, my tongue was numb; and my chest was wheezy from breathing in the cold air. I am an historical sufferer of asthma: I haven’t needed an inhaler for years; I could have done with one on Wednesday morning. But I ran; and I ran two lots of 5 minutes and one 8 minute slot. When I think of that New Year run when I felt as if I was dying after running spurts of 1 minute, I can see how the stamina is building. It feels good, as if I’m achieving something I didn’t think I could do. On Friday I ran again, but on the treadmill this time. It was sleeting quite hard when I went out to run, and after the downpour for most of Thursday I didn’t think the Donkey track was a good idea. The good news is, I ran for two spurts of 8 minutes each. I surprise myself every time I go!

On Thursday, my copy of the ‘Mind’ anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying arrived in the post. It has some brilliant poems addressing mental health issues and is on sale to raise funds for mental health charities. You can get a copy here, if you would like to buy in order to contribute:

https://www.amazon.com/Please-Hear-What-Not-Saying/dp/1984006649/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517601752&sr=1-2&keywords=please+hear+what+im+not+saying

If you do buy, make sure you get the latest (2018) anthology though; there is also a 2011 copy of the same name on sale as well.

Saturday was another PhD day. I worked some more on the thesis on Saturday. I’m still not happy with it; I need to take time to really think out what it is I’m wanting to say; what point am I trying to make? At the moment it feels too much like a poetry review and not an academic piece; not academic enough, anyway. I’ll keep chipping away and eventually it will be what I want it to be. It’s a hard task-master, this PhD thing. Its whip is soft but relentless!

Anyway, here is the poem I wrote about the woman at Victoria. I hate bigotry in all its manifestations. She had a willing audience in another man who was on the periphery of the group waiting for the tram. He was agreeing with her, giving her permission to be a bigot, so she aired her views loud and clear. There was no reasoning with her; and I resent the assumption that because I have grey hair I need someone ‘sensible’ like her to warn me. What use is money unless you can do some good with it? Any one of us could be reduced to the need to ask for a brew; thankfully up to now, I haven’t had to: but I will be sympathetic to anyone who asks a cup of tea of me. Here’s my ‘own back’:

 

Alternative Mothers no. 13

That Woman Waiting For The Rochdale Tram At Victoria

The poor only have themselves to blame,
you say. Workshy. Scroungers.
It’s true, you say.
But what about the homeless, I ask.

They’re not homeless, you say, they’re immigrants
coming over here taking our jobs.
After Brexit there won’t be any immigrants

 you say. Farage and Johnson’ll send ‘em all home.
They’re good blokes, you say, they’re one of us.
I say, they’re not one of us, Ma, well
they’re not one of me. I say

Q: How do you know when a Leave campaigner’s lying,
A: Their lips are moving.
You don’t laugh.
You cuff my ear instead.

A homeless man on the platform tells me
he has mental health issues,
asks for the price of a brew—
he doesn’t read the tabloids Ma, I say, he wraps
his body in them to keep himself warm,
he wipes his arse on the Mail.

I just want to be warm, he says. I give him some cash
but you say all the Manchester ‘’homeless’’—
you actually manage to pronounce the quotation marks—
they all get together at the end of the day to share the takings
then go home to their comfortable houses.
You’ve seen them on the tram, going home, you say.

But what about charity, I ask.
Charity begins at home, you say.
But what if you’re homeless, I ask.
I start singing there’s a hole in my bucket.
You pick up today’s copy of the Daily Mail.

Rachel Davies
February 2018

 

 

I’m Fine With February…

…well, I’m not, actually: I hate it. But I’m using a psychological approach to it this year to find the positives. Mostly so far, they involve the fact that the days are getting longer, and that can’t be bad. Spring is on the way, I keep telling myself.

On Sunday last I meant to do some work, but when I sat down to have breakfast, the first ball was being served in the men’s final at the Australian Open. How could I not watch Roger Federer in a record-breaking 20th grand slam final, his 6th Australian Open? Marin Cilic looked a bit of a push-over in the first set, but he learned how to fight back and it went to the full five sets. I was so pleased to see Federer win in the end, he’s such an elegant player; and his emotional acceptance speech shows how much it still means to him. I’ve loved watching him play for twenty years. And he’s not done yet. He has earned the nick-name The Goat (the Greatest Of All Time) apparently, and you can’t argue with that. I did make a start on my thesis while I was watching: I decided on three poems that will form the start of it, so I wasn’t entirely work-shy. I never did get down to it in any serious way though. I’m a bad person!

On Monday I went with Hilary to York for the launch of the Beautiful Dragons Press anthology Noble Dissent. We each have poems in there. It’s a collaborative response to Brexit, to Trump’s inauguration and to yet more Tory austerity. Hilary’s poem is about Annie Kenny, an Oldham suffragette; mine is a pastiche of Jamaica Kincaid’s prose poem ‘Girl’; it depicts a political agent coaching a candidate in ‘successful’—for ‘successful’ read ‘dodgy’—practice. The train to York was delayed by the wrong kind of freight train on the line; but we reached York in time for tea at Betty’s before the event. It was a small meeting, but vibrant; seven of us there reading our own poems and the poems of absent friends. We had time to discuss the politics behind the poems and it was a good evening all round.

Tuesday I got down to some serious work. I actually started the writing of my thesis. It begins with the three poems I chose on Sunday, with reflections on them and on the whole mother-daughter relationship thing. It all feels too personal at the moment, but there, I’ve done it, I’ve started writing. I can edit later. At about 11.00 Hilary came round to help me record my poem ‘Meg’ for Andy Nicholson’s podcast for the launch of Please Listen To What I’m Not Saying, an anthology of poems to raise funds for mental health charities. I’ll post details on here when I have them in a couple of weeks. We recorded three or four other poems as well, for future podcasts. I was grateful for Hilary’s help. The recordings got to Andy OK too; and I had a listen in to the copies Hilary sent to me. I hate the sound of my own voice. I don’t think I sound like that at all.

After lunch I spent time preparing for the Stanza meeting in the evening. It was a writing session this week and I had to step in at the last moment when a friend sent apologies for illness. I came up with an activity from one of the prompt books I bought last year. This week we went back to our old haunt, the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. It felt good to be back. We had three very different writing activities producing some interesting writing: another good evening of poetry.

Wednesday I had a meeting with the accountant to check the VAT at Amie’s restaurant. There was snow on the ground when I left home. It was that kind of snow that’s like tiny snowballs stinging your face when they hit; but it was very local snow, because when I got to The Black Ladd—less than a mile away—there was none. Anyway, I’ve been having trouble with online banking for a couple of weeks so we rang Natwest to sort it out. Turns out they’re having trouble with Safari and Google Chrome and if I download Firefox it’ll be fine. Am I, or are they, missing the point here? If they know there’s a problem—where there has never been a problem in the past—shouldn’t they be sorting it out? I don’t want to download Firefox, I want it to work with Safari again, as it always has until a couple of weeks ago. I did manage to get it to work on Explorer, on the laptop I use for the accounts, so that’ll have to do for the time being. All that used up time I don’t have, so it was well past 5.00 when I left for home, about three hours later than usual. Bill cooked tea—jacket potatoes, nothing too demanding—I needed a bit of pampering.

On Thursday I was doggy-sitting for Amie’s two Cockerpoos. I took my work with me. I had a very productive morning working on my thesis and I was quite pleased with what I achieved. I revisited the writing I did on Tuesday, reorganised it a bit and added to it, made it less personal, so now I have more than a thousand words I’m quite pleased with: it’s probably still a bit too personal, but I can work on it. The thing is, I’ve made a substantial start and that’s important. It’s going to get easier now. I took the dogs out for a longish walk just before lunchtime; or they took me? How can two closely related Cockerpoos be so different in temperament? Sonny, the younger one, is energetic, excitable; Cooper, the older brother, is sedate and organised. Sonny looks up to him and copies everything he does: if Cooper sniffs a spot, Sonny has to sniff the exact same spot; if Cooper explores under a bramble, in goes Sonny. It was a lovely walk, blew some cobwebs away. After lunch I did some online research into ‘The Wife of Bath’ for a poem I’m planning for my ‘alternative mothers’ series. I’m rereading Chaucer’s prologue and tale, in Victorian translation, not the middle English original of course. She’s a feisty old bird, I took lots of useful notes.

Saturday, more work. I updated my Poets & Players competition spreadsheet. Entries are coming in thick and fast. You have until the end of the month to get your poems in, so come on, give me some work to do: https://poetsandplayers.co
I did some reading around presence, absence, absence in presence etc. for the thesis. All very confusing, but it’s a thread I’ve made for myself. There is no end to this research thing, always another path to slink down. After lunch I was back at my desk, drafting my ‘Wife of Bath’ poem. I’ve called it ‘Alysoun’, after her Christian name in the prologue. I know, she appears to be childless in the prologue. But she was married at 12 to an old man; so I have imagined her having a secret baby in a convent prior to being married off. Poetic licence? Well, Geoffrey doesn’t actually say she didn’t have children, so it’s plausible. And she definitely enjoys a full-on sexual experience. I had thought I’d have real fun writing this, a feisty daughter for a feisty mother. But it has actually written itself as a very dark piece, a poem full of resentment. I love it. I’ll be taking it to The Group on Monday for feedback.

So, another week on the road to PhD. I heard this week that my end date now is 21st May 2019. So I have a year and a bit to complete it, a bit more breathing space. But I must learn to knuckle down and not be waylaid by the likes of Roger Federer. He might be good to look at, but he is not the path to success. Prevarication is the thief of time; or something.

I’ll leave you with a little poem I wrote for Hilda Sheehan’s surreal ride on the poetry carousel in December. It sort of sums up how PhD can take over your life to the detriment of other stuff. It was literally a series of random thoughts; although it was obviously dredged from the unconscious, because it was only when I re-read it this morning that I saw the connections: the slut’s wool, the words ‘defying their right to be constrained in ink’, feeling trapped behind my own eyes. I hope this PhD angst is all worth it in the end.

 

Random Thoughts

slut’s wool under the brain’s bed
words defy their right to be constrained in ink
each new day a wiped board
my eyes the windows I stand behind watching others being free
the train’s hooter a clarion to unexplored spaces
in an ideal world every day would be followed by Saturday

 

Rachel Davies
December 2017