Monthly Archives: March 2018

On not reacting too quickly

Sunday was Mothers’ Day. I had cards from all my lovely children, including the cats. I had gifts that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: theatre vouchers, flowers, a Blue Tooth beanie with built in headphones and a designer belt for getting back to my running. The most poetic gift though, was toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on every sheet. A perfect franchise idea, in my opinion.

After last week’s blog, I had lovely feedback from friends who are also doing PhD or have recently completed. Offers of coffee and chat; reminders that it is my PhD and I can present it pretty much as I want; recommendations of relevant books to support that take; and this, which sums up very nicely how I was feeling last week:


So on Sunday I thought a lot about what I should do with Angelica’s advice re the ‘too autobiographical’ feedback. I decided to do nothing until I’d read a book recommended by Angi Holden PhD: Practice as Research in the Arts (ed Robin Nelson). I downloaded it to my Kindle. But I took Sunday off in honour of the day. Prevarication again!

On Monday I genuinely meant to go running again; I’ve let it slide, what with the foul weather and being away, but I decided to pick up a bit behind where I left off. Unfortunately it was lashing with rain and blowing a hooley when I got up so I postponed the pain. Yes, I’m a lightweight! Instead, though, I did settle to work. I wrote another ‘alternative mother’ poem so I had something new to take to The Group in the evening. Amie called in for a brew in the afternoon to make up for having had to work on Mothers’ Day. When she left I went into Manchester to meet Hilary for food in Bundobust before going on to The Group at Chapter One Books. Hilary has just got her MA results: MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from MMU. I gave her a card I bought when Bill and I went to Glasgow a few weeks back. I was always confident she’d get a distinction: she’s a very good poet.

The Group was lovely, as ever. Seven very good writers sharing work for feedback. The ink was barely dry on my ‘alternative mother’ poem. I got useful feedback: I had used ‘white’ too many times, could I find other ways to say what I was saying? Could I form it more regularly—it’s a poem about OCD? It shows how important it is to take new work to  workshops: you don’t take time to tidy it up, so don’t notice things. I’ll be working on it again in the light of their feedback.

On Tuesday I had to go into Uppermill for two appointments. I parked at the Newbank nursery at Dobcross and walked in along the canal. I ran the canal path on the way back to my car. It hurt. When I got home I dedicated the day to reading Practice as Research… I’m so pleased I did, it helped to get the feedback I had from my supervisor into some kind of perspective. Practice in the arts can be research, be it performance, composition—or creative writing; it needs rigorous planning and focus, obviously, but it should be recognised as such. I realised while I was reading that it will be hard for me not to be autobiographical when I’m reflecting on my own poetry: a good deal of it is grounded in my life. I can be objective and detached talking about Selima’s work, or Pascale’s, but I’m too close to my own poetry to detach myself from it and see it only as text. I’ll finish reading the book before I do anything rash, I decided.

Wednesday was a bit of a nightmare: the Sage software wouldn’t load on the Black Ladd laptop to allow me to do the books. I contacted the accountant: I had the software from them. I was getting an error message about ‘permission to use it on this machine’. Grrr! I had permission last week, so why not now. I didn’t get a very helpful response from the accountant: no response at all in fact. So when I’d done all I had to do without the software I decided to try a system recovery. I reasoned that the software wasn’t working now, so what was the worst that could happen? It transpired that Windows 10 had updated itself in my absence to a later version which didn’t recognise Sage. When I effected a system recovery, restoring an earlier version of Windows 10, Sage loaded with no problems. So I was quite proud of myself because I know very little about the anatomy of IT, just how to do what I do. Of course, that took most of the morning to resolve, so I was behind in the work. It was late afternoon before I got home. Bill had put jacket potatoes in the oven, which was good because I was out again at 5.30 to go to an MMU event at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation: a talk and poetry reading around the theme of the body and ‘selfies’. Dr Ann Burns gave a talk about the selfie, specifically the ‘duck-face selfie’ and its negative reaction on social media. This was the focus of her PhD—no really, you can get a PhD about ‘duck-face’! And it was fascinating stuff. Judgemental trolls attack women for posting selfies, apparently, a manifestation of women being only what men think they should be. I felt duty bound to flood social media with my own ‘duck-face’ selfies, even though I think they are ridiculous. Why shouldn’t women post duck faced pouts if that’s what moves them. Andrew Macmillan read his wonderful poetry: what an asset to the Writing School he is; and Nicholae Duffy gave a talk about Andy Warhol’s exhibition of ‘stillies’: full-face videos of people sitting and doing very little. It was a fantastic night. Hilary and I posted a ‘double duck-face’ on the MMU Writing School FB page while we waited for the tram at St Peter’s Square. Childish? I know. But also a valid and very intellectual reaction to the evening (insert smiley faced emoji).

On Thursday I had a Poets & Players lunchtime planning meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road. This is where we hold our poetry and music events through the year. The next one is this Saturday. If you can come, you will be very welcome: high quality music and poetry for free. Yes, FREE! So do come if you can. Details here: We are slowly getting our year’s events together; some exciting stuff to come, so keep in touch with the website for news.

On Saturday it was the launch of the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Noble Dissent. This collaborative anthology was conceived in 2016 as a reaction to the election in that year of the Trump and the (in my opinion) disastrous vote to leave the EU. It is a wonderful collection, a celebration of ‘dissenters’ through history. Hilary and I both have poems in the anthology and we braved the Saddleworth snow to drive to Lancaster for the launch. The ‘minibeast from the east’ was doing its worst when we left home, but we were pleased that there was no snow beyond Oldham. There were a couple of light snow showers in Lancaster, but nothing (un)settling. We spent the whole day in the library soaking up the poetry day of the Lancaster Litfest. Readings from Rebecca Bilkau, Rhiannon Hooson, Kate Fox and Hannah Hodgson were my highlights. We only left the room to look for coffee during a break at lunchtime. We had taken an all-day picnic, so we didn’t have to search for food. Just a day of good poetry. Lovely.

The drive home wasn’t so pleasant as the drive there, though. The minibeast exposed its sting from Bolton onwards: blizzard conditions and drifting snow: and windscreen washers frozen over! So we were particularly pleased to reach home. Hilary did the driving and she was brilliant. If you’re thinking of swapping your car any time soon, I can recommend a Mazda: it handled beautifully in the snow even though it doesn’t have 4WD. It took us about an hour longer to get home than to get there, but we did get home. Bill had lit the fire and the slow-cooker casserole I’d prepared before I went was warm and delicious smelling. It was good to be home. I have no idea what the weather is doing at the moment because the windows are all blocked with blown snow. I am on the third floor of our house at the moment, so I’m guessing we’re not buried in a snow-drift; but you never know. I can hear the wind roaring. I can hear a hot brew calling me too. So here’s the poem I wrote on Monday, unedited, not yet redrafted, a poem in its raw, first draft state. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Perhaps I’ll post it again next week when I’ve worked on it some more.

Alternative Mothers #15


 whenever I see—
a girl’s model police car with a red light on the roof
or colouring-in that seeps out of the lines
or a boy’s drawing of his mum with arms growing from her ears
or a story that ends then I woke up
or the misplaced apostrophe in Fish and Chip’s…

whenever I see—
odd socks with running shoes—one white one striped
or Adidas gym tights with a Reebok top
or white stilettos with thick black tights
or the wrong pocket in a dress from Pause a Second
or one blue button sewn among the right ones on a white blouse…

whenever I see—
a five leafed clover
or an albino hedgehog
or  snow turned mushy
or a green chrysanthemum
or a blackbird’s white tail feather
or an extra chromosome in a child’s make-up
or bottle-bottom lenses, hearing aids, a wheelchair…

I think of that Christmas and you
throwing away two dozen mince pies hot from the oven
because mincemeat juice has bubbled out
from the geometrically measured hole in your
precision-placed lids.


Rachel Davies
March 12th 2018

Best friends with Macbeth

On Monday evening, I went to the inaugural lecture, ‘Green Noise and Gravestones’, of Professor Jean Sprackland at Manchester Metropolitan University. There were lots of MMU/poet friends there supporting her. There were drinks and nibbles followed by Jean reading from her two new books, due to be published later this year: Green Noise, a collection of poetry, and These Silent Mansions, a collection of essays about graveyards. There was a wonderfully poetic essay about a slow-worm, with a fantastic, shimmering bronze photo, that she’d seen in a graveyard. I know about the slow-worm but I’ve never actually seen one. Jean writes beautifully about nature. One of my favourite poems of hers is ‘The Birkdale Nightingale’, a poem actually about the Natterjack toad. I heard a fantastic and memorable line from one of her new poems: ‘the strong life of the inert’. It was in a poem about her brother growing crystals, but it describes perfectly the objects I remember my mother by in some of my poems: spoons, churns, egg cleaning tools. Jean gave me permission to use the line, properly referenced obviously, in my thesis. It was a wonderful evening.

On Tuesday I was at my desk all day. I still hadn’t heard from Angelica about the writing I’d sent for feedback so I was reluctant to work any more on the thesis until I’d heard from her. I concentrated on the creative side of the work instead: my favourite aspect. I looked for the next poems I want to use in the thesis and did a fair amount of editing on them. Some were poems written specifically for anthologies, for instance ‘Like Penelope’, which I wrote for the Beautiful Dragons anthology Not a Drop inspired by the Ionian Sea. I took out the direct references to the Odyssey and placed it more squarely in the domestic: it was about my mother after all. I like editing poems I wrote some time ago: it’s a bit like a potter refining a piece of clay work, moulding and polishing it until it’s almost perfect. I also wrote a new poem, ‘Test Card’, about watching telly when we were kids and how Mum always fell asleep in front of the telly. Oh my, I am becoming my mother. I’m a part-time insomniac, but I always manage to doze when the telly’s on, even if it’s something I really want to see. I’ve taken to sky-plussing programmes I really want to watch these days, just so I don’t miss it. I’ll post the poem at the end of this blog: I don’t think it’s a poem that will earn its keep on its own, but it might fit into a collection or pamphlet.

On Wednesday it was my day at the Black Ladd. Although the snow has left most places on Saddleworth, apart from the lee of walls and shaded places, on Buckstones Road it is still piled high beside the road where the snow-ploughs left it; great banks of snow all grey and dirty and speckled with bits of tree that blew off in the high winds. Although snow is beautiful when it first falls in its soft whiteness, there is something really sad about dirty snow, as if it is totally uncared for and deserves a good bath and a new set of clothing. There is a saying up here that standing snow is ‘waiting for some more to join it’. I hope that isn’t true. I’m waiting for the heat wave we always get after a hard winter: always the optimist.

I had my feedback from Angelica while I was working at the Black Ladd. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for. She made it clear that she really liked my poems that I’d included, but didn’t understand why I’d made the thesis so autobiographical. It seemed like a new direction to her. I needed to use the poems to describe the mother-daughter relationship, in conjunction with the poetry of Hill and Petit and the work I’d already done on their poetry; but not to write it autobiographically. I was feeling thoroughly depressed when I went home, wondering where to go from here; wondering if I’d ever strike the right notes. How easily I fall into that ‘I’m worthless’ frame of mind. I felt like Macbeth: “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Dramatic, yes; but apposite. I have to finish this thing because I’ve come too far; although on Wednesday night I felt like ditching the whole idea. I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night worrying about it. I spent the entire night going over it in my mind, planning what I could retain and what get rid of: I never considered deleting, just cutting and saving the autobiographical bits to use possibly in an introduction. On Saturday I was back at my desk re-planning, taking myself out of the work, planning to write it from a non-autobiographical distance. If I ever get this thesis written to anyone’s satisfaction you will hear the cheer go up from Saddleworth; wherever you’re living in the world. I re-read Coventry Patmore’s ‘Angel in the House’ to get me back on track. I know, it’s awful. Virginia Woolf said that ‘Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer’ and I needed to get to know my victim!

On Tuesday the postal entries to the Poets & Players competition arrived at my door. Viv, a colleague on the committee, had been administering them. So on Tuesday afternoon I went out to buy brown paper and a thank you card for Pascale, and an ink cartridge to replace the one emptied by printing off hundreds of competition poems. On Thursday I wrapped all the poems in cling film against the damp weather and then parcelled them up in brown paper and Sellotape with the thank you card for Pascale. I tied the parcel with string; and I took them to Oldham Post Office to send them on their way to Pascale’s home in Cornwall. A woman in the car park started singing ‘A few of my favourite things’ when she saw my ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’. It cost less than I thought it would for the postage. This was just about two reams of paper altogether, so a heavy parcel. It cost just over £17; when I sent the poems to Paul Muldoon in New York a couple of years ago it cost £80+; so I was happy with £17. I heard from Pascale that the poems arrived safely on Friday; so if you entered, rest assured that your poem is probably being read by Pascale as we speak. Thank you for your entry and good luck.

Here’s the poem ‘Test Card’, that I wrote on Tuesday this week. Not the best poem I ever wrote, but it does what I want it to do for its place in the thesis. Although, obviously, it isn’t about me. It’s just a poem.

Test Card

ITV’s been a thing for three years
by the time Dad buys the television.
Suddenly the wireless is passé

and we’re watching George Dixon
evenin’ all; we’re rocking
with Pete Murray, high-kicking

with the Tillers, falling for
Digger Dawson, hearing the call
to nursing.

Sitting in your chair by the fire,
head cocked to catch the words,
you’re asleep before DSI Lockhart

has even buttoned his gabardine.
Head nodding, mouth ajar,
soft snoring. We’re keeping quiet.
It’s way past our bedtime.


Rachel Davies
March 2018

The Beast from the East and other stuff

This week has been all about the weather and the processing of Poets & Players poetry competition entries. On Sunday sons Richard and Michael left early for home, always sad to see them go. I got down to work after breakfast, processing and printing entries. By lunchtime I had them all up to date. I expected a tidal surge of entries on this, the last weekend before the deadline, but it didn’t really happen; just a steady trickle all day. On Monday I really did mean to go running, to pick up where I left off; but it was flurrying with snow when I got up and very, very cold. The Beast from the East was close enough for us to feel its cold breath. I know, I could have gone to run on the treadmill, but I didn’t, I’m a bad person. I made porridge and stayed in in the warm.

I redeemed myself somewhat by coming up to my study and working on the thesis. As all writers know, writing is a process of writing something, deleting it, starting again, deleting again. The product rarely matches our expectation of it. On Monday I read what I had written already, cut about half of it. Yes, I did say ‘cut’; not quite the same as ‘delete’ is it? I cut it and pasted it into a separate document of ‘out-takes’—in case I need it in the future. I worked on the half I had retained, polishing it, improving it—I hope. It’s slow progress when you take two steps forward and one step back: when will that ever get me to the finish line? I read through what I had left that I was happy with. Then I started with the usual on-board censorship: what if it isn’t what’s needed? What if I’m way off the mark? What if I get the 16000 words drafted to send to Antony in the summer and it isn’t at all what it should be? The British life position, I learned when I was an aspiring head-teacher, is ‘You’re alright, I’m not alright’, that everyone else knows exactly what they are doing and you are the only one in the dark. That is certainly my default setting: the product of an abusive grammar school education. I decided to send what I’ve written to Angelica to ask if it is worth pursuing. If it isn’t good enough, I’d rather know sooner than later. So I emailed it off when I finished work on Monday. I asked for minimal feedback, nothing too involved. I just need to know if it’s worth carrying on or if I need to change tack. I will hear from Angelica this week; so fingers crossed I can carry on.

My cat had run out of her prescription dental biscuits by Monday. I’m telling you this because on Monday afternoon we went to Tesco for cat food and we called at Briar Dawn Vets in Shaw on the way home to pick some biscuits up. This turned out to be a very good move. Because on Tuesday morning the Beast began to growl. It was snowing enough to need to dig out of the drive. Thankfully, the car I bought last April has four wheel drive, so a bit of snow is less of a challenge. On Tuesday morning there was about 2cm of snow when we got up. It didn’t keep me in: I had a hair appointment in Uppermill at 9.00 and I did get there. I parked on the main road when I got home.

I spent the morning processing entries to the competition: they were coming in a bit faster than the weekend, but I kept up to date with processing. In between doing that job, I read Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It recently won the T S Eliot prize, and has won the Forward Prize for best first collection and numerous other prestigious awards. Believe me, it was a worthy winner. I was blown away by his writing: innovative, moving, tender and frightening. Ocean was a refugee from the Vietnam war: they used to be referred to as ‘boat people’ because they risked their lives in unworthy craft to take the ocean way out:

Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

The collection is bejewelled with wonderful words, well worth all its many accolades.

Read it!

I was reading it in preparation for Stanza on Tuesday evening. We had to cancel. By teatime the Beast was outside our door, panting for blood. I consulted the group and consensus was to leave it for this month, so I rang the Buffet Bar and cancelled the room. It’s a shame, because I was really looking forward to discussing Ocean’s work; but now I have a whole month extra to keep reading. We have deferred the discussion until the next meeting at the end of March.

Wednesday was a joyous day because it was the last day of February. I hate February, it comes at the end of a long, cold winter and I am a summer bird. I was born in one of the hottest summers of the last century and summer is my natural home. If I could, I would hibernate from January to March. Snow defined the last day of February this year: in like a lamb, out like a lion this year: it can’t even get that right, can it? My day at the Black Ladd was cancelled: Amie had shut up shop due to the weather, so I stayed in and used my buckshee day to process more entries. They did indeed come in thick and fast all day. I had them all up to date one minute, the next minute another dozen or so to process. They were up to date by the time I stopped work for the day; by the midnight deadline I had another 180 poets to process. So thank you to everyone who entered: we really do appreciate it. Last year I remember having a bit of a rant on here about people who don’t follow the rules: this year was much better. A few poems over 40 lines, but on the whole the rules were observed and entries are now processed and printed, ready to send to Pascale Petit next week for the judging. I always feel inordinately excited to hear who has won. We should know by the end of March.

Outside, the Beast continued to growl. The snow fell thick and fast, the wind howled. Thursday was the climax: I use the term in the way you might discuss a fever. This was like a fever, raging and raging, slightly hallucinatory, no sign of breaking. Sitting by my fire, I could hear the Beast roaring outside, winds up to 50 mph, gusts up to 90 mph. Snow was being blown horizontally to the west: roofs were bare of snow even as it fell. I imagined Liverpool, the last bastion of civilization on the mainland, being buried under all the snow that was blowing west. And that wasn’t far from the truth. The M62, only a couple of miles north of here, was completely snow-blocked for two days. Hearing the weather raging outside, I felt as if I’d been beamed up to some inhospitable planet and would never get home again. The winds dropped slightly by Friday as the Beast slinked away. By Saturday we could risk the journey to Tesco to stock up on rations. No milk. No bread. Hardly any eggs. Sparse shelves, and people still panic/manic-buying as if their very existence depended on it. It doesn’t: get a grip. While most people were, like me, sitting it out in front of the fire, rough sleepers were still having to find refuge outside. Shopping always winds me up, but yesterday was an eye opener. One woman with a large shopping trolley mounded with a dozen or more bulging carrier bags; the man in front of us spending £203. Put some of the bread back you snapped up ‘just in case’; share the milk; and calm down, really, you won’t starve.

When I wasn’t being wound up by Tesco shoppers, I was working on the creative aspect of the PhD. I looked over some of my poems and did some editing. I also put together twelve ‘alternative mother’ poems to send out to a pamphlet call, deadline midnight on Monday. I immediately see where a poem can be so much better after I’ve sent it out into the world to earn its bread. Hey ho, that’s writing for you.

I’m posting a different poem this week, not a portfolio poem at all; but it does describe that default position of not quite cutting it, not being ‘alright’. Writers are expansive in their inspirations, but highly strung and anxious about their poems. We must have perfection we can never attain; it’s not enough to just be the best you can be. We should learn to let that suffice.

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, and ones I’ve forgotten
a straight 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