Monthly Archives: December 2018

It could be worse: I could be Rhona.

Sometimes, people ask me how I fit so much into seven days. I don’t know; my life is full and I’m happy; because it’s full of stuff that matters to me. This week: poetry, PhD and life in big forkfuls.

The Poetry Carousel continued on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday morning I was in a workshop run by Kim Moore. The workshop addressed different ways of seeing in a poem; taking different viewpoints. Kim’s workshops are always thought provoking and this one was no disappointment. I wrote two poems that might make it into the creative element of the PhD, which is always a good thing. One of my poems was about ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’, a sideshow at the fair; no-one had heard of her, so it fell on barren soil when I read it out. Rhona was a woman who sat in a pen, inside a tent, with a few drugged-up rats. I remember her dressed in a leopard skin, Tarzan-like; but my daughter insists she was naked, because when she and her brothers laughed, Rhona said—in a broad Liverpool accent—‘You’re supposed to be looking at me rats!’. Anyway, she had this enormous thigh bone—it looked like a diplodocus thigh!—that she stirred the sleepy rats with. That’s it, that was the act. But no-one in the workshop knew her. Kim suggested I turn her into an ‘alternative mother’, and that’s what I’ll be trying later today.

We had the afternoon free. Hilary and I took a walk to Kent’s Bank railway station: there’s a small art gallery/gift shop there. When I say ‘short walk’, it took us all of five minutes to get there. The sun was shining, it was cold: one of those winter days that make winter nearly bearable. When we got back to the hotel, I did some more reading—Carolyn Jess-Cooke—before dinner. After our evening meal, Sean O’Brien and Kim both read, followed by ‘Tada’—Sarah, a course member, and her friend singing country, their husbands on guitars. Sarah has a rich country voice; it was a good after-dinner event. To end the evening, a friend from my Poetry Society Stanza and two other course members performed ‘The Lion and Albert’: voice and ukuleles. I was so tired I just wanted to go to bed but I stayed for the performance because it was Pat, who only got her ukulele last week, apparently, but she has taught herself to play. It was a bit incongruous to hear Nicholas, urbane, cravated, ‘received pronunciation’, reading in Stanley Holloway’s voice. Altogether it was a lovely evening.

On Monday I was up early to pack my case, load up the car and check out of my room before breakfast. This is the last year the carousel will be held at Abbot Hall: the hotel was sold earlier this year and will be upgraded to five-star early next year. Next December’s carousel will be held at a different venue. I’ve always asked for the same room when we’ve been to Abbot Hall, so I was quite sad to say goodbye to it. Hilary and I are determined to call in next year en route to the new venue, to see what they’ve done with it. Anyway, after breakfast it was the last workshop, with Greta Stoddart, one of my favourite contemporary poets. This workshop was my favourite of the weekend: looking at the importance of the line break, and experimenting with different places to break the line. It was full-on for two hours. I’m pretty sure I have some portfolio poems from that one too. Then after lunch we headed home.

At six o’clock we were out again: Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Carol Ann read from her new collection, Sincerity;Manchester Met Writing School members read before the break: I was particularly struck by Ian Walker, whose wonderful poetry addresses the sex-life of invertebrates. If you haven’t listened to poetry about the sex life of the Californian Sea Hare, a giant sea slug, you haven’t lived! Aplysia Californica can grow up to 75cm long and weigh up to 7kg! Imagine that big boy among your bedding plants! Zafar Kunial was the headliner after the break: Zafar started a PhD with me in 2015, so should have been submitting about now. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask how it was going. His reading was good: he’s much more relaxed as a presenter of his work than when I first heard him in Ilkley about four years  ago. I’m reading—with headliners Paul Henry and Brian Briggs—at the next CAD and Friends, 14thJanuary, Royal Exchange Theatre. It’s a sell-out already: they must have heard I’m coming!

Tuesday and Saturday were dedicated entirely to the PhD. I was doing the nitty-gritty reference checks, making sure they were in the right order, and in the MHRA in-house style. The colons, commas, brackets are all important in writing the footnotes: a missed comma could be the difference between pass and fail, I’ve been told. So I printed off my bibliography and checked off the books as I referenced them in the work. The trouble with cutting and pasting is, it messes with your footnotes. The first reference for a book is a full copyright reference, with subsequent references in an abbreviated style. But when you cut and paste passages, the footnote moves with the cut and paste, so you can end up with subsequent—abbreviated—references coming before the full reference. I checked them through thoroughly and systematically and I’m happy that they’re all in the right order now—as long as I’ve done with cutting and pasting! It took two full days of minute secretarial work to get it to a place where I’m happy with it, but it’s done. I’d hate to fail the PhD because my footnotes didn’t come up to scratch. So that means today I can concentrate on the creative aspect, getting the poems I drafted last weekend written up and polished for the portfolio. I’m really looking forward to that.

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Christmas officially began this week. On Wednesday Bill and I went to lunch with Hilary and her husband, David. We went to Green’s vegetarian restaurant in Didsbury: their Christmas menu was wonderful, we ate so much I probably didn’t need to eat again all week. Except, I put up my Christmas tree on Thursday in time for the visit of my friend Joan. It’s pretty minimalist: I have two cats! In the evening we went to Amie’s Black Ladd for the Christmas menu–ate so much again I didn’t need to eat until New Year. Except, Joan stayed over and we went out for breakfast at Albion Farm on Friday morning. And I’d just like to say to the person who scraped my car on their way out of the car park: I hope you got four punctures on the way home. And head lice. And toothache. But apart from that I’m fine with it.

Jean Sprackland got in touch in the week. One of her Creative Writing MA students is thinking about doing a PhD and she asked if I’d be willing to talk to him about some concerns he has. Of course I will: as anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows, this hasn’t always been a smooth ride for me: in fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve come close to giving up on a couple of occasions: thankfully that negativity didn’t last long, I’m no quitter. But it’s important to go into this huge commitment with your eyes open: I think I was blinkered, rose coloured specs and all that. I breezed through both my Masters degrees without too much angst and I assumed a PhD would be more of the same. It isn’t. It’s a whole different ball game. It asks a level of expertise in your subject that I still don’t feel I have; and a commitment of work that is crushing sometimes. Bill said this week, ‘I really miss you when you’re working.’ PhD’s like that: it takes you away from your real life, you have to immerse yourself in it completely. You need to know that from the start. Knowing it wouldn’t have made any difference, I would still have done it: it’s a personal challenge, like Everest, it’s there and I’m driven to conquer it. The difficulty of the challenge is a lot easier to live with now I’m approaching the finishing line; but knowing the depth of challenge, and that everyone experiences the angst and it’s not just you, might have saved my self-esteem at the start. Jean knows all this, and she still asked me to talk to him. I’ll be up-front and tell it as I experienced it. I’m still standing, after all.

Here’s the first draft of my ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ poem. Well, technically it’s the second draft, but it is as I wrote it in my notebook on Sunday last. I’ll be reworking it later today into an ‘alternative mother’ poem; but in the meantime, you can have it as it came out of my pencil end:

Rhona the Ratgirl Reveals All But Her Ambition

I imagine her world is
this stall in this tent
this animal skin
this thigh bone
these rats.

She reclines on a bale of straw
draped in an animal skin
in a distant approximation to sexy.

She pokes the somnambulant rats
with a three-foot-long thigh bone.
They’re too high on chemicals to notice.

Imagine the ambition it took to become Rhona
then just ask yourself…

Rachel Davies
December 2018

The howl of poetry…

I’m writing this from the deep dark of Kent’s Bank near Grange over Sands, where I’m enjoying a weekend of poetry on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. We have four high-class poets here running workshops for us. So far I’ve had workshops with Andrew McMillan—putting the ‘queer’ back into poetry; and Sean O’Brien— reflecting on the surprise in those moments of ‘nothing much’ that confront us. Today I have a workshop run by Greta Stoddart, and tomorrow with Kim Moore. When did I get to be so lucky? It’s 5.00, it’s cold, it’s quiet and the world’s asleep: a perfect scene for writing.

As usual, I’ve had a busy—and productive—week. Having worked on the introduction to the thesis on Saturday last, I gave it a rest on Sunday—my son Michael’s birthday—and worked on the creative element instead. I completed the necessary RD9 for my meeting with Jean Sprackland, then spent a lovely morning working on some of the edits she’d suggested at the meeting. It’s my favourite part of the PhD, the drafting, redrafting and editing of poems. Creativity is such a balm for the soul. Everyone should have some creative aspect to their lives. I’m not suggesting everyone takes up poetry, that’s not the point. Creativity comes in many guises. My daughter, Amie, is currently teaching herself to knit. My friend Pauline ‘does’ crafts: lacemaking, spinning, greetings cards. Another friend, Hilary, is a wonderful baker and makes her own clothes as well as being a fine poet.  We have to find our own creative space. Mine is poetry. It’s a big space. Having worked on the creative element on Sunday, I now have to completely redo the contents page of the collection, because I moved one of the poems to a different position, and now the contents numbering is awry. Ho hum, worse problems to have!

On Tuesday I played hooky and went with Hilary to Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet, where I bought a gorgeous pair of flowery Doc Martens; a pair of ridiculously cheap embroidered Next jeans; and a Radley handbag, some of the proceeds of which go to the British Heart Foundation. Yes, I am the owner of a Radley bag! I carry the Scottie dog with pride. It was so good to take time out, ‘do lunch’ and spend time with my friend. This will become my life, post-PhD!

One day off piste is enough for anyone though, so on Wednesday I was back on it, working on the conclusion to the thesis. I started a separate document, making notes for my conclusion and realised that what I was actually doing was writing my conclusion. So I cut and pasted it into the thesis. I’m not sure I’ve been ‘summative’ enough: I don’t seem to reach any ‘conclusions’, those original contributions to knowledge that the PhD is all about. But it is an ending of sorts. By the end of Wednesday I really could see the finishing line in the middle distance. I had too many words again, so I had to cut and paste some of the body of the work into longish footnotes: footnotes are excluded from the word count. I asked Hilary to read it through for me: she’s been dropping hints for weeks about wanting to, so I knew it wasn’t an imposition. I sent her the thesis and the collection of poems. She’s brought them away to Kent’s Bank to read in those free afternoons. I’m excited for her feedback.

Thursday I thought I’d better do some ironing, so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by walking around Abbots Hall hotel in my vest and pants. Ironing still hurts my back, so I took some hot water bottle therapy afterwards. I left packing my case until Friday morning. On Friday I picked Hilary up at 10.30 and drove us up the M6 to Grange. The weather was mostly foul, but with the occasional short, sharp burst of sunlight that produced some wonderful rainbows en route. We had lunch in the Hazelmere café in Grange, the two course Christmas menu; took a quick look around the shops before driving to the hotel about 2.30.

After unpacking and settling in to our rooms, we met other carousel-riding poets, many of whom are poet-friends, and the four workshop-leading poets, in the hall at 3.30. Our first workshop was at 4.00: no time wasted here! Andrew McMillan’s workshop was thought-provoking, about trying to see your poems through frosted glass so you don’t make everything explicit, leaving room for the reader to look for their own answers. I didn’t write a great deal to brag about, but I came away with new ways of looking; new ideas to try out. A three-course dinner, a shared bottle of wine—on top of lunch—and I was feeling quite sleepy. On Friday evening, Andrew McMillan and Greta Stoddart, two of my favourite poets, read from their various prize-winning collections. I was in bed soon after they’d finished. I hadn’t slept well on Thursday night—bloody shoulder—so I could feel the rhythms of the evening poetry readings lulling me to sleep. I didn’t fall asleep before I climbed into bed though, but it was a close run thing.

Saturday morning. The hot water at the hotel wasn’t working, so no showers, except in Kim’s chalet in the grounds. She offered us all the use of her shower, and I had visions of forty poets, all with sponge bags and towels in hand, queuing outside her front door for their turn. Presumably everyone else had a similar vision, because I don’t think anyone else took her up on it either. So, no showers; but we’re all in the same boat, all equally skanky, so it didn’t matter. The hot water was back on by the afternoon, so showers were on the agenda before the evening meal. After breakfast on Saturday we had the second ‘ride’ on the carousel. Sean O’Brien’s workshop asked us to consider those quiet moments when nothing much happens—Sunday afternoons, for instance; or the early hours—and imaging something from nothing happening. He handed out poems to illustrate his point: we read ‘Pointed Boots’ by Christopher Middleton, about the quietness of a railway station at 3.00 a.m.; and ‘The Apprehenders’ by Kit Wright, about a do-nothing Sunday afternoon with a crime novel. Sean gave us forty minutes to write a poem about our own quiet, do-nothing times, and the poem I’ll close with is about this. A lifetime ago I was a nurse, and I loved the low-keyness of night-duty, the strangeness of working when everyone else was sleeping. The community of night-duty workers took delight in adding fun to the necessary stress of nursing. My poem is about this; and about how I once scared myself witless by reading The Hound of the Baskervilles’in the pool of light from the lamp at my ward desk.

Saturday afternoon I came to my room and read Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Writing Motherhood: A Creative Anthology (Seren 2017), with prose pieces, poems and interviews with women writers who have fitted motherhood into their lives as writers. I’m loving it; and loving seeing poets I know included in the anthology; and loving that I am finding places where I can enrich my thesis with something from the book. Is there no end to a writing task? After our evening meal last night, Rishi Distidar came to read for us. He’s a young Indian-heritage poet, funny, overtly political, engaging. A Q&A session followed; a good evening all round.

So that’s where we’re up to so far. More lovely poetry today, so I’d better knock on. Here’s the poem I wrote for Sean O’Brien’s workshop yesterday morning. Be kind to it: it’s less than twenty-four hours old, and it’s due a feed!

 

Night Duty

Three in the morning and the air
is ripped by Mr Goodfellow’s flatulence, bed 3.
The anglepoise’s pool of light over the desk
slowly seeps to black. A rustle of paper
now the meds are done, the pupils checked,
the TPR lifesigns marked on charts.
Mr Bagley snores up a storm in bed 10,
from bed 1 Mr Chattergee is talking in his sleep,
pleading with his surgeon or his god—
it’s not for me to discriminate—
to send him home.
Now, here’s Fran, the knowall first year
collecting a dozen fallopian tubes
for Staff Nurse Goose, who she’s pissed off.
She comes every night on such a Goose chase:
a long weight, a pair of threeceps,
an emergency admission for Mr Hare
with myxomatosis.
I send her on her way to pathology
and the air settles into an approximation of sleep.
Somewhere within the anglepoise’s pool of light
Mr Holmes is startled by a howling dog.

Rachel Davies
December 2018

…a small pinprick of light

Completion of PhD is getting so close I can feel it; I can see it, a small pinprick of light at the end of a shortening tunnel. Six months left, and I’ll be using every one of them, but this week I took a significant step toward completion.

On Wednesday I met with Jean Sprackland, my creative support, to discuss the poetry collection. In the past I’ve sent sets of six or seven poems to her for feedback. This is the first time I’d sent her the complete body of work to read and comment on. We met in the Eighth Day café on Oxford Road and it was with some trepidation that I walked along Oxford Road in the rain, with the wind almost strong enough to blow me off my feet. We had tea and cake and talked poetry. I had three major questions:
Q1: is it a sufficient body of work to fulfil the requirements of PhD?
A: yes it is!
Q2: is my organisation of the collection appropriate?
A: yes it is!
The third question she answered without my asking: she enjoyed reading the poems, the mix of humour and pathos, the mix of forms, lengths, styles and emotions, the creative arc. She loved my crown of sonnets, a colloquial dialogue between a mother and her daughter, the first sonnet crown I’ve attempted. She had some small suggestions about four or five—out of eighty two—of the poems, mostly about sustaining metaphor, or strengthening verbs; one of the poems needs a bit of an overhaul. But apart from that, it’s almost ready to submit. Yay! A huge load off my mind; especially as I still have six months and several writing workshops booked before the deadline, so I can add to it if I write anything appropriate; and all the poems I write seem to be about motherhood at the moment, it’s a bender I’m on. I came away from that meeting full of joie de vivre—and chocolate and date cake—and went to meet up with Hilary in the MMU library.

We went to Principal on Oxford Road for bar snacks and coffee—actually I had a cider to celebrate—before going to the launch of Jean’s new collection, Green Noise (Jonathan Cape 2018) at No. 70, across the road. We met with lots of lovely poetry friends there, all alumni of the MMU Writing School, where Jean is Professor of Poetry. The event was introduced by Andrew McMillan, another poet-tutor at the Writing School. I heard Jean read some of this collection at her inaugural professorial lecture earlier in the year, I even asked her permission to use a line of  one of her poems—‘Crystallography’—as a quote in my thesis: ‘the strong life of the inert’, which she uses to describe the growing crystals, but which seemed just the phrase to describe the ‘things’ we remember people by, in my case, the tools my mother used in her day to day work as wife and mother. The reading on Wednesday was lovely, such a good collection, a minute look at nature, well read; followed by a Q&A session. I bought the book and Jean signed it ‘With love and admiration’: how good is that, to be admired by one of the country’s top poets? I was all poetried-out when we went home; and too poetried-up to sleep.

In other PhD news, I’ve been working on the thesis again; yes, I’m back into it, tackling it with renewed vigour after my meeting with Jean. I can see the finishing line, and I’m running hard to get there. On Sunday last, I printed off what I’ve written and redrafted already. I followed my Director of Study’s advice and began to read it through, taking notes of each paragraph to give me a framework for the introduction and conclusion. It was good to read it, a near-complete piece: I always find it more satisfying to read from paper than from the screen, I pick up on more issues. I found a major one: a couple of the pages near the end would fit much better within a section I’d written in the middle! So I did a cut and paste job; and then worried about saving it in case I didn’t like it where I’d put it. So I saved both versions: how many saved copies do you accrue before the final version is submitted? I have files within files, Mk 2, Mk 3, the final version, the final-final version, the post-October meeting with A&A version, the post-October experimental version—etc. I have to find ways of remembering which version I’m currently running with! But when I read through it again—from the screen this time—I liked the change, it made sense, it worked. By the end of the week I was putting together my introduction, about 1000 words telling the reader what the thesis covers. It seems like an easy job; but it comes with its own angst: I think it’s too long, I think it needs cutting down; but at least I know where I can lop some without spoiling the overall. Chip, chip, chip. I feel like Michaelangelo, who said he knew there was a perfect figure in that block of stone, his job was to keep chipping away until he found it. I keep chipping away until I find the perfect thesis hidden in all these words.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. This session was an anonymous workshop: poets submit poems to me, which I put into one document, standardise the font then send out to all the poets who submitted to read and prepare for discussion and feedback at the meeting. There were six poems this time, six members at the meeting. It was a good session. We couldn’t have our normal room, it was booked by the Stalybridge Clairvoyant Society—I didn’t see that coming, Boom Boom!—so we met in the conservatory instead. It was noisy at first, several groups sat drinking at tables; but eventually they left and we closed the door to inhibit all-comers and had the room to ourselves. Our meetings were at critical attendance levels about a year ago, so it was good to have six members, with two apologies. Our conservation work is taking effect: we’re off the red list!

Finally, life: it was the first session of physio for the damaged shoulder on Thursday this week. We were a few minutes late, because just as we were leaving the house, our car was blocked in by the dustbin lorry. Is the physiotherapist always that curt, or was it because we were late? Your bedside manner needs some work, lady! And did I just imagine her sadistic delight at causing me pain in the examination of the shoulder? But she gave me some simple exercises to do at home, and I’ll see her again in January. That is to say, the exercises seem simple, sliding my arms up a wall, or sliding them outwards from the waist at a table, elbows at right-angles. But my goodness, I can feel the effects the next day. No pain, no gain, I keep telling myself; and I keep popping the codeine, which brings its own problems, but I do like liquorice!

I’m going to include the first sonnet in my crown of sonnets this week, in celebration of my very positive meeting with Jean. I wrote this following a visit in 2016 to Manchester Art Gallery to see the ‘Strange and Familiar’ photographic exhibition. I was particularly struck by the grotesque photographs of Bruce Gilden, especially one of an elderly woman, her bloated face a ‘street map of veins’, her hair in rollers. You can see a reproduction of the photograph here: https://www.google.com/search?q=Bruce+Gilden+photographs&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjeqejMrfTeAhVC3qQKHQzBBuMQ_AUIDigB&biw=1191&bih=750#imgrc=_

If you click on the ‘images’ tab you will find her—eventually—about 25 rows down. You can’t miss her. I was struck by her because she was displayed next to a board of photos of young girls in the 1960s, all mini-skirts, Sassoon haircuts and self-confidence, and it occurred to me that she would have been one of those young girls once. That was the inspiration for my sonnet crown, a dialogue between her and a fictional daughter I gave her. The italicised line introduces the daughter’s contribution to the dialogue. All fiction, but fun to write. Here’s the first sonnet of the crown; as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting:

 

Mirror Images

I’m looking in the mirror
at a lardy old woman; but here
in the photo, Hyde Park ’68, I was thin
as an elf, confident, full of myself:
Quant make-up, leather jacket,
geometric hair, first generation mini-skirt,
burned bra.
See the photo of me then
and my mirror self now: blood-flushed
face a street map of veins,
wattle chin, whiskers like thorns, tits
slapping my knees.
I get that life’s a burlesque but

you landed the role of grotesque.

 

 Rachel Davies
2017