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

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