The euphoria of ‘poemy brain’

Some weeks, life drives me, so the PhD has to ride in the back seat. This has been one of those weeks. Poetry has been all this week. I’ve dived into it, swum in it from Monday to Friday. My brain, as Hilda Sheehan recently remarked, is all poemy.

On Sunday Hilary and I were still at the Birmingham Verve festival. After breakfast we took the short walk from the hotel to Waterstones for a 10.00 a.m. workshop—‘writing the wild’—with Pascale Petit. I really enjoyed that: she kicked us off with a game of metaphors. We were given a folded paper with a noun on and we were asked to write a word or phrase that said something about it: for instance ‘a chrysalis—is a swaddled infant’. We tore off the phrase and passed it by the left, keeping the original noun; I received the phrase ‘is a six-footed tap dancer’. We read around with our original word and our new phrase. They didn’t all work well, but sometimes there was a gem that showed how approaching metaphor differently can give you a surprising line to kick-start a poem. After the two-hour workshop I asked Pascale to sign the poetry collections I had taken with me. She recognised my name as the author of the recent piece about Mama Amazonica published in The North, which was amazing: lovely to think she’d actually read it. Hilary and I went to Costa: a toasted tea-cake and coffee for lunch before being back at the desk at 3.00 for another workshop, led by the Dudley poet, Liz Berry. What a fantastic poet; what a lovely woman. Her workshop addressed writing tenderness without sentimentality. We brainstormed ‘tender’, read tender poems; my favourite was the Sharon Olds poem ‘Looking at Them Asleep’, a poem inspired by her sleeping children, which averts the danger of being even a bit sloppy.

There was just time for a cup of tea in the Waterstones café before going to the final reading of the festival: Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir and Liz Berry. Although only about five feet tall, Liz Berry was a poet head and shoulders above the other two readers–in my opinion. Her poetry uses Black Country dialect in surprising ways, and her delivery is mesmerising. I was shocked by her poems addressing post-natal depression. She is always such a pleasant, generous woman: it showed how mental illness can afflict us all. Nick Makoha read poems about internal political conflict in his native Uganda; and Nuar Alsadir, a scientist-poet, read from her book Fourth Person Singular. At the end of the evening, the conclusion to the festival, our heads were waterlogged with poetry. At 8.00 we went to eat in a local Thai restaurant; they asked us to leave at 9.00 because they were closing early. We weren’t told this when we booked the table. Have you tried bolting a Thai curry in double-quick time? All those red chillies–our poor alimentary canals!

Monday morning, after packing our suitcases and taking breakfast, we walked the short walk to the Cathedral to see the Burne Jones stained glass windows there. It was a grey, mizzly day, but even so, the colours were astounding. We joined a small group being guided by one of the Canons: apparently the artist was only paid £200 for the first commission: when it was done, he said the fee wasn’t enough. Until he came to the ‘inauguration’, or whatever you call it when a stained glass window is presented to the congregation. The sun was shining, and we when he saw his halos glowing in the light from the sun, he was bowled over and agreed to do three more for the same price. They are magnificent, and well worth calling in for a gleg if you’re ever in Birmingham.

The train journey to Manchester was uneventful, and we were home soon after three o’clock. What a wonderful festival Verve is: we’ll definitely subscribe next year.

On Tuesday I had planned to visit my grand-daughter in Telford, but the visit had to be called off at the last minute, so I had a day I didn’t know I had to do some pressing jobs on the poetry front. I spent the day processing entries for the Poets & Players competition. Deadline is Wednesday, only four more days to get your entries in:

I also prepared for the reading I was giving in York on Thursday: I sorted out my set of poems, practised reading them, timed myself for the fifteen minute slot.


Joanne Stryka reading at York Explore

We travelled to York on Thursday afternoon for the reading at York Explore library, for the ‘Finding the Words’ event. How well organised was that. There were three readers: Hilary and me and Joanne Stryka, who recently launched her Cinnamon Press pamphlet After, which she read from on Thursday, a ‘heart-breaking account of the aftermath of a suicide’, that of her daughter, in which she manages to ‘sing the unsayable music of pain’ (Don McKay from the Cinnamon Press website). You can order the pamphlet from Cinnamon Press:

Hilary read poems from her recent MA portfolio; and I read several of my ‘alternative mother’ poems alongside other poems from my portfolio. Hil and I had hand-stitched a pamphlet of our previously published poems, and we sold eleven on the night. We both had lovely feedback from the audience, and Will Kemp, who is part of the organising of the event, took us all for a drink in the Lion and Lamb inn after the reading. It was such a good night and I was too poemed up to sleep after.

On Friday my son Michael came to visit after a horrendous journey on the M6—is there any other kind? We went to Amie’s for the evening: she cooked her delicious cheese and onion pie. On Saturday, Richard joined us for an overnighter. We went to the Black Ladd, Amie’s restaurant, for lunch on Saturday because Amie had to work and it was the only way Richard would get to see her. In the evening he and Mike went to Leeds to a Morrisey concert. I’ll be sad later today when they both go back to their real lives.

On Saturday I did some more work toward administering the P&P competition: did I tell you you only have until Wednesday to get your entries in? I brought the spreadsheet up to date, and printed off about half of the entries. Still a fair amount to do there then: and the entries usually come in thick and fast on these last few days. I also wrote another ‘alternative mother’ poem, so the PhD wasn’t entirely side-lined. This one was an ‘own back’ poem for someone my son used to be bullied by. Enough said.

And here we are, Sunday again. Have a good week.

I’m including my poem ‘Meg’, which was recently published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, to raise funds for the mental health charity Mind. You can buy a copy here:

The poem is inspired by a friend from my childhood who took her own life in the end. She was such a jolly, out-going person, fun to be around. You can never know the pain a person is feeling inside: how we mask what we’re really going through. Here’s ‘Meg’, a modern sonnet. The early lines are ten syllables in length to give it pace and rhythm, until the turn at line 9, when the syllabics are disrupted, as her life was..

Alternative Mother #4


 Teach me to build a den down by the beck,
how to pond-dip water snails, sticklebacks;
teach me the kindling sticks to pick to build
a campfire, how to mount a stone surround
to keep me safe; teach me how to light it,
let it burn to embers before baking sour-
dough bread on willow sticks; teach me how
to live without the essentials: running water,

flushing toilet. You. Teach me how to forgive
a lover who doesn’t deserve me, how
to raise a family alone. But don’t teach me
how bleach can’t clean everything.
Don’t teach me how a bridge over the M1
is the only way out.

Rachel Davies
December 2018

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