Monthly Archives: August 2018

Seat covers, Lacan and the papal plums

Time flies. Tempus fugit. It was Sunday, now it’s Sunday again. It was August 1st, now August is more than half-way through. It was my birthday, now my birthday is a month past. The leaves are turning, the days are getting shorter. And my PhD deadline, which once seemed a comfortable age away, is on an unseemly rush over the horizon.

The good news is, I’m 61% through the edits of my thesis. Yes, I’m OCD enough to have worked it out. Last week I couldn’t get over the half-way mark because the half-way mark kept receding as I did more writing; but this week I have scaled the summit and I’m coming down the other side. I worked at it on Sunday, lots of reading; and reading always leads to more reading. Much of it was stuff I’ve read before, and although I’ve got the notes of my previous reading, I wanted to be sure of my material. It was more selective reading: relevant chapters and use of the index, whereas before I was reading cover to cover. I was reading and adding comments and supportive arguments into the thesis as I went along. Reading is an easier job when it’s targeted on a particular focus. I found a couple of academic articles online that I hadn’t read before and they proved useful too. I was elaborating on my section about women poets, their relative invisibility which reflected the general invisibility of all but a few outstanding women in the twentieth century. In order for women poets to be recognised, they had to form their own small presses and publishing houses. Sisters, doing it for themselves.

I missed my usual working day on Tuesday: I had planned to meet a friend for lunch. Janice is an old work colleague, we went on holiday to Kos together one year when both our love-lives crumbled. She’s had a bad time this year. Her partner has been seriously ill since Christmas, but at last he’s on the mend; so she felt able to take a couple of hours off and come out to lunch. We met in Uppermill, went to the Wagon, had a lovely lunch and lots of chat. It’s good to have friends you don’t see for months, then when you do meet up it’s as if you never took a break. Amie asked me on Monday if I’d be able to help cover the settle seats in the bar and restaurant sometime, so as I wasn’t doing academic stuff on Tuesday I agreed to go in on Tuesday morning before I met Janice. Amie had bought a plain grey fabric, easy to work with. We managed to get half the settles done, following a method of trial and error. The last time they were covered, the covers had been stapled into the wooden settles so we had to get all the staples out to save diners ripping their legs to shreds. It took a couple of hours, and we finished in time for customers arriving at midday. I went back on Friday to cover the seats in the bar: they were easier than the restaurant ones, less staples to remove, and we were done in an hour. They look good. She wants some new cushion covers now to set them off. How work always leads on to work.

Wednesday I went for a run at 7.00 a.m. It was a better day for weather than Monday. I altered my route a bit, dropped down from the Donkey Track to the road, making it a circular: about 2.5km again, still a slow pace, but pleased that I’d done it. The rest of Wednesday was taken up with PhD: reading, writing, redrafting paragraphs and sections, polishing the work. I read it all through from the beginning to make sure it flows well. There were some glaring errors in syntax, having added to and redrafted the text, but when I’d edited them out I was quite pleased with it. Saturday I had another full day on it. I was re-reading Lacan’s theory of the mirror phase in child psychology. Lacan is notoriously difficult to understand, slippery as an eel. I can’t grasp his words and make them make sense at all. Lacan represents acadamese at its most frightening: I’m a literal thinker and Lacan comes to meaning via the side-streets. But I worked away at it and made my own kind of sense of it, backed up by writers who write about Lacan’s theories to help and support baffled folk like me. I wrote all that up into the thesis as well, so that’s what took me well over the 60% line. I genuinely don’t know if I’ve made sense of Lacan or not, the kind of sense he intended; but I’ve tried to make it all make sense in my own context. I’m moving on; I’ll read it all through later today, when I’ve worked on the next section.

Friday I took my last run of the week. I ran 2.8km in a very satisfying pace: I achieved three personal bests: for the 400m, the mile and half mile; and a second best ever for the 1km; so that was a good run, I felt as if I was getting back to where I left off; I’m getting my fitness back. On Friday evening I met my friend Joan. We went for a meal in Café Istanbul in Prestwich, had a lovely meal: lentil soup followed by Imam Bayildi, a vegetarian dish of stuffed aubergines, all with lovely  Turkish flat-bread. Joan is recently back from Chicago where she’s been visiting her son’s family; so there were lots of photos and videos to be looked at: her beautiful grand-daughter, who is just two years old. Joan gave me, among other things, a collection of Robert Frost poems for my birthday. One of my favourite poets, I’ll enjoy reading that. It’s on my reading list for the Aberaeron holiday in a couple of weeks.

You might have noticed that ‘poetry’ is missing from this blog: large in its absence. I did have contact with Rebecca Bilkau in the week, the editor of the shared pamphlet that’s coming out in the autumn. We have a book cover now, and there will be some illustrations inside, including one of a daughter peeking at the papal plums. It’s all very exciting. The official launch will be at the Portico Library in Manchester sometime towards the end of October; and we already have a reading booked in for the Square Chapel in Halifax in January. All invites gratefully received. I’ve been asked to ask someone to write a couple of sentences in praise of my poetry for the book cover. I’ve asked Jean Sprackland. I haven’t heard back yet, Jean’s on holiday; but how good would that be? Hilary has asked Helen Mort, who has agreed. This book is about to happen!

So, I’m including the ‘papal plums’ as my poem this week, so you know what that refers to in the last paragraph. It’s in one of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, ‘Pope Joan’. She was a feisty mediaeval woman who disguised herself as a man in order to be who she wanted to be: a scholar. She was so successful, she was eventually elected Pope, and the Church didn’t know she was a woman until she gave birth in the street, on a Papal procession. I know, outrageous and unbelievable. She was dismissed as myth and fiction by the Church. But they designed a chair with a hole in so they could feel ‘the papal plums’ to make sure they had a man in post. Why would they do that if Pope Joan hadn’t been for real. I think she was real, anyway. Here’s my poem:

Alternative Mother #1

Pope Joan

Duos habet et bene pendentes

I learned the hard way the drawback
of lacking a pair, not to have them
dangling nicely.

After you dropped me on the street
between Vatican and Lateran Palace
they tied you to your horse’s tail
and dragged the life out of you.

They said you betrayed the Father
of Fathers. They said you delivered
a boy; but they thought you were a man,
so what did they know?

They erased you from Church history,
dismissed you as fiction and myth.
What need, then, to sit their new Pope
on the dung chair with the holey seat,
feel reassurance in the Papal plums.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

 

Cold turkey and Stilton burgers

Do you ever think a plan is a bad idea and you should give it up and try something else? Going to MMU library last weekend was a bit like that. I planned to go on Saturday, but thankfully I checked the opening times for the summer, and on Saturdays the library is closed; but it is open on Sundays from 11.00-17.00. So I settled for Sunday. I got to the tram stop to find that there was (another) problem at Cornbrook and the trams were only going as far as Exchange Square; well, that’s OK, it’s a bit further to walk, but I can walk from there. The first tram to arrive was only going to Monsall; and anyway, it wasn’t in service. I decided that if the second tram was also going to Monsall I’d get in my car and go home again, leave the library for another day. But the tram arrived and it was going to Exchange Square. So I got on. At Newton Heath the driver announced he had been ordered to terminate at Monsall, but there was another tram behind, we could all get on that. So, we all disembarked at Newton Heath, hoping to get a seat on the next tram. Of course, we didn’t: we were packed in like sardines in tomato sauce, it was hot, sticky, uncomfortable and four stops to endure. I got to Exchange Square wondering why I’d bothered. I thought of getting straight on the next tram home; but I needed to go to the library and I’d already wasted an hour getting to Manchester. I did what any sensible person would do: I went to Salvi’s for coffee and cake while I decided. I decided to walk to the library.

It was past midday when I got there. The job I wanted to do was a quantitative analysis of the number and percentage of women represented in anthologies of poetry through the centuries.  I know, a plum job but someone has to do it. I chose six anthologies—all edited by men—from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Guess what? There are more male than female poets in all of them—I bet you hadn’t guessed that, had you? An inequality of about ten to one. In one of the anthologies there were no women poets at all. In one, there were as many men called Thomas as there were women! That did surprise me, and that sentence is in the thesis. I ate my butty at my desk and worked until about 3.30, then walked back to Exchange Square only to find out that trams were back to normal and I could have caught it at St Peter’s Square. Ho, hum. Some days are just sent to try us. At least I got the job done.

On Wednesday I continued the analysis with three general anthologies I have on my bookshelves at home, and the results were much the same; even the one anthology I came across that’s edited by a woman; even the Bloodaxe one for goodness sake: Bloodaxe, who boast on their website about their commitment ‘to inclusion and diversity in British poetry’. Shocking! I wrote up my findings into the thesis.

I had a lovely day on Tuesday: poetry, friends and cider. What’s not to like. I took the bus to the tram stop–so I didn’t have to drink and drive, kids. I nearly didn’t catch it though: a car was parked just before the bus-stop, and despite me waving my arms like a football fan, the bus went straight past: I had to run 50 yards to catch it. The driver apologised: he didn’t see me for the car. Come on! I’m not that small! Anyway, I met Hilary at Mumps tram stop and we went to Piccadilly to catch the train to Crewe—oh, Mr Porter! We had time for a coffee in Carluccio’s at Piccadilly and we inveigled a  plate of biscotti out of the lovely waiter. We were in Crewe by about midday. We went to the Lifestyle Centre, where our poetry friend Helen Kay had an exhibition of ‘Poetry, Dyslexia and Imagination’. It is a brilliant display: poems by men and women who have struggled with dyslexia all their lives, some I have known on the MA course and didn’t suspect for a moment they were dyslexic. There was art work to support the poems. There was history on display: did you know that Flaubert (Mme Bovary) was dyslexic? I didn’t even know dyslexia was recognised that long ago: apparently, it has been recognised as a condition for two hundred years. And how far we haven’t progressed in that time. Thank you, Helen, it was a wonderful display. It is a project for Helen’s MA in Creative Writing at MMU; in my opinion it has ‘distinction’ written all over it. We watched poetry videos on a wonderful little Bluetooth gizmo, where you just put the dvd-cover looking thing on a special board and it reads, loads and plays on screen. How have I lived my life without this gadget?

Helen recommended The Big Apple for our lunch so we walked into the town centre. We were apprehensive at first: The Big Apple looked like a transport café, but the options didn’t seem huge: we couldn’t find anywhere else that served food, so we went in. We had burger and chips: my burger involved Stilton cheese, which is a favourite. We ate while we listened to songs from my youth: ‘It’s my party’; ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’; ‘Lipstick on your collar’. We sang along like the old buggers we are. It was wonderful. We went into the Cheese Hall for a pint of cider to celebrate Hilary’s graduation a couple of weeks ago. We left the pub at about 5.45, went off in search of a bus to get us back to the station; we’d walked to the station without finding a bus. I saw on FaceBook a couple of days later that Crewe is planning a make-over in line with Liverpool’s prior to its being granted European City of Culture. I don’t know Crewe well, but on Tuesday’s showing, a make-over would be good. The town centre is quite depressed. But the Lifestyle Centre is impressive; and we had a lovely day overall.

Saturday I was at my desk by 8.00 working on the thesis again. It’s a Sisyphean task, rolling that thesis uphill to watch it roll down again; at least that’s how it feels. I just start thinking I’ve done loads and it’ll get easier, but then I realise I’ve only worked on a couple of pages even though it’s taken all morning to do it. It keeps being ‘half way through’; but half-way moves as I do more work. I wonder if I’ll ever reach the end sometimes. But I’ll be there later today, working away at it, showing it who’s boss. Trouble is, it already knows who’s boss—and it ain’t me!

Oh, and running. I have been running again this week even though I am still  doing Prednisolone cold turkey and I’m dosed up on paracetemol and ibuprofen. I’ve only managed about 2k so far, but in very satisfying times; I’ve made a good start back.

So; a poem.

Listening to all the songs from the fifties and sixties in The Big Apple café on Tuesday reminded me of a poem I wrote the first time I went to Zakinthos for a holiday. We were on the midnight aeroplane, along with thousands (seemed like) of Club 18-30 revellers. They were clearly post-A levels and out for a good time. The girls had tee shirts with the legend ‘I   Zante’: when they turned round: ‘In Zante without panties’. No, really. It was too good a tee shirt not to put in a poem. It reminded me how times have changed: these young folk going to Zante to celebrate being over school. We piled into boyfriends’ cars and sped along the new M1 to Watford Gap services for a frothy coffee—how sophisticated were we—and listened to ‘It’s my party’ on the juke box. Ah, carefree days. It set me to planning another poetry sequence involving things we got up to that our mothers knew nothing about and would have been horrified if they had. Anyway, here’s the poem. It was one of the poems on a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2012: ‘Ruth Padel’s Poetry Workshop’, featuring writing groups around the country. The programme visited our Stanza at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Poetry, eh? Always something going on!

 

Here’s the poem:

 

I (Heart) Watford Gap

 their tee-shirts say I (heart)Zante
and on the back, In Zante without panties

and I think of that trip after our results,
being driven at speed in boyfriends’ cars

along the new M1 to Watford Gap services
for frothy coffee, feeding the jukebox,

Lesley Gore singing ‘It’s My Party’,
the boys calling us their birds and us

preening our feathers and chirping to be fed
how we used to before we read de Beauvoir

and Greer, before we burned our bras.
And I smile to think of the legend

I (heart) Watford Gap on a sixties tee shirt
but that was how we severed the school tie,
cut the umbilical cord, nearly grew up.

 

Rachel Davies
(August 2018 version)

Poetry, PhD and Audrey Hepburn

Some weeks just shine. This has been one of those.

I discovered poetry after I retired. Of course, that’s a disingenuous statement: I’d always known about ‘poetry’. I studied the Romantics at school; I studied Shakespeare, Eliot, Larkin. I studied R.S.Thomas and Dylan Thomas. Poetry was a male environment, it seemed. Of course, It wasn’t: but the grammar school syllabus, and my A level evening class syllabus, didn’t seem to include women poets; or they played a minor role if it did. I don’t remember any; except possibly Plath. When I retired, I discovered poetry, modern poetry, a world of poetry I didn’t know existed; readings, pamphlets, books, workshops, Poetry Society Stanzas. Poetry. My life would be poorer without it. This week has been full of it. So I’ll start with poetry.

On Monday evening, I went with Hilary to the Square Chapel in Halifax for a reading organised by Keith Hutson. I can’t see Keith without thinking of Wilson Pickett singing ‘In the midnight hour’; but that’s another story from another day. On Monday Keith had brought three wonderful poets together for an evening of readings by ‘Cape Crusaders’ as he called them. Mark Pajak recently completed an MA from MMU; his Smith Doorstop pamphlet, Spitting Distance, was as a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet in 2017; he has a full collection coming out with Cape in the near future. Mark’s poetry shows how the most obscure event, like a day working at a chicken farm, for instance, is food for a poem. Mark was followed by Michael Symmons Roberts, one of my favourite modern poets. He is also published by Cape, more collections, more awards, than I can list here. He read mostly from Mancunia, a book length sequence of poems about his home town, Manchester, reimagined. Wonderful. After a break, Andrew Macmillan read. I loved Andrew’s first collection, Physical; possibly one of the most sensual collections I own. His new collection, Playtime (Cape, obviously), was officially released on 1stAugust; so on Monday we were at the unofficial preview launch. It’s wonderful. I bought a copy, which Andrew signed. I wasn’t being favouritist: I have the other poets’ work on my bookshelves already. All three poets read beautifully, fine examples of modern poetry; of accessibility coupled with Wow! I met lots of poetry friends there too, always a bonus.

Tuesday it was our Stanza at Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Our numbers have been dwindling a bit lately, so it was good to have seven poets in attendance—one very welcome new member—with one unavoidable apology. We had eight wonderful poems to workshop; all very different in style: love poems, nature poems, poems about family, political poems. It was a good night, an evening of insightful criticism and feedback. I enjoyed it so much. Poetry is the best antidote to sleep ever: on Monday and Tuesday I was so buzzed up on poetry I couldn’t even think of sleep. So I read. Poetry!

Lastly, on the poetry front, two poet friends sent me drafts of their latest Beautiful Dragons poems. The next anthology is entitled Watch the Birdie. It’s includes about eighty birds as subjects for poems by about eighty poets, one bird each. The poems I was sent for reading and feedback were about the red-backed shrike and the red-necked grebe, both lovely birds, both terrific poems. My own bird is the fieldfare, a winter visitor. Having read the poems of friends, I thought I’d better get my skates on and write my own. I’d done the research and knew how I wanted to make my poem; it’s just committing to the writing. The deadline is the end of August, I think, but I wrote my poem ‘Feldifire’ yesterday and sent the first draft off to the two friends for feedback. Feedback was good, with one useful idea for edits. I edited it in bed last night, so I think it’s good to go. I won’t send it till nearer the deadline, though. I’ll keep reading it to make sure I’m happy with it. How many times have I sent poems out, only to realise it would be a better poem if…?

I met a fellow PhD poet/friend on Monday and we were comparing notes. It was good to hear that she has similar experiences of sometimes feeling bamboozled by the process . I told her about the time I’d sent in a twenty-page document and my DoS had said ‘I really liked that bit on page 8’; which left me thinking the other nineteen pages weren’t worth the paper. Of course, it didn’t mean that at all; but that’s the default position, that feeling of worthlessness, that thing about only taking the negative feedback from a meeting. When I got home and read the feedback on the document itself, there was more positive feedback than I’d heard in the meeting. She’s had similar meetings; and then that wonderful surprise when you have the annual review and the report from DoS is all positive and you’re on target for completing within deadline and that you’ll be OK. (I still find that last bit hard to believe; as if by believing it I’ll jinx it, so I still think in terms of might…)  Anyway, the PhD has had a fair old slice of me this week too. I’ve been chipping away at the thesis, making it the best it can be, working within my support team’s advice. I’ve done loads of fresh reading, one piece of reading leading to others via footnotes and endnotes. It’s like fighting your way along a brambled path, all this reading; then sometimes you find the fattest, juiciest blackberry and it’s all so worth it.

Finally, the ‘life’ bit. I haven’t been running this week. The stiffness in my arms, signifying, I thought, the return of Polymyalgia Rheumatica, has been particularly bad in the mornings, which is a feature of PMR–it tends to improve through the day. On Wednesday I had an appointment with my GP to get the results of the Dexa bone density scan I had a few weeks back. The good news is, the Dexa was fine, keep doing what I’m  doing. He couldn’t tell me about the synacthen blood test though, as he hadn’t ordered it and wasn’t sure how to interpret the result. He advised contacting rheumatology again.  He ordered blood tests to check for a PMR flare re the stiff arms and hands: the earliest available date was 14thAugust. On Thursday morning I rang rheumatology to check if the synacthen test results were available. I spoke to a rheumatology nurse, who called me in later in the day for the blood tests I had booked with the GP surgery, so that was good. She rang me back on Friday morning with the results. All the blood tests, including the synacthen test, were in the normal range; so that was good as well, but it didn’t explain the continuing stiffness. She advised upping the paracetemol and ibuprofen: it could be a physical reaction to coming off the steroids after 4 and a half years, she thought. She’s arranging another consultation with the rheumatologist to make sure everything’s OK. So I’ve upped painkillers to two or three doses a day, and it seems to be improving. Fingers crossed. I don’t have time for being ill, it’s not on the timetable. Getting old is fine: except when it’s not.

So that’s it, another very full week; lots of PhD, poetry and life. Never a dull moment and lots accomplished. And a new poem to boot. What’s not to like?

I sent an ‘alternative mother’ poem to Stanza for feedback this week. I didn’t submit it as an alternative mother, though, because we submit the poems anonymously to allow for more authentic feedback; labelling it ‘alternative mother’ would have been a dead giveaway as one of my poems. I wrote it in a Helen Mort workshop in St Ives in April, but I’ve never been quite sure about whether it works. I sent it to Stanza to see if it deserves its place in the portfolio. I was surprised that the poets at Stanza liked it overall. It’s a sonnet, fourteen lines with a turn and everything; no rhyme scheme though. It’s about one of my silver screen heroes, Audrey Hepburn. My favourite line in a film comes in ‘Charade’, when Cary Grant is trying to get to know her in the café scene and she says, ‘Do I know you? Because I have so many friends, I can’t possibly know anyone else until someone dies.’ Brilliant.

Here’s the poem:

Alternative Mother #17
Audrey Hepburn

The elfin face, the well delivered line,
the designer clothes—these things were
the screen’s. You made Quant and Chanel
extraordinary by your childlike frame. You ate.
In films you’d be seen devouring chocolates,
cakes, knowing perhaps that some things
do indeed taste better than thin.
You used cosmetics like an artist, so
your own face was what I grew up with—
you never turned to the nip and tuck
but let your face tell the story
of things you’d seen. When I look in the glass
is it me who’s fairest of them all, Audrey,
or a version of me that Maybelline promotes?

Rachel Davies
April 2018