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

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