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

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