A foretaste of life after PhD

On Monday I read with ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I arrived at the Stage Door as requested at 6.00 p.m. and, as Bill opened the door into some dark cellar, might have become Manchester’s own phantom of the opera, forever roaming the bowels of the theatre, if the security man upstairs on CCTV vigilance hadn’t noticed and called us up the windy stairs to the first floor. We met up with Mark Pajak and John Fennelly,  the house poets. Cue the first glass of wine. I also met Daisy and Lauren, the two other MMU poets who were reading in the first half of the evening. We had sound checks, then a full run-through, in which my voice sounded, to me, weak and nervous. Thankfully, a second sauvignon blanc helped calm me down. The audience began to fill up. Hilary Robinson, my dragon sister, arrived. It was Hilary’s birthday, and I gave her my birthday present, which included Jackie Kay’s collection, Bantam (Picador 2017). I took my seat on the sofa on stage while jazz musicians played the audience in. Imagine my surprise when Jackie Kay herself walked in and sat full centre in the front row, directly in front of the lectern. And imagine the nerves, knowing the Makar, the Poet Laureate of Scotland, would be among the few audience members with whom I could make eye contact during the reading, because the theatre lights almost completely blind you to the entire audience apart from a section of the front row. Anyway, Daisy and Lauren read beautifully, confidently, hardly a sign of the nerves I know they were both feeling. Then it was my turn. I walked to the lectern. The nerves were somewhat dissipated by the wine and I felt good. I think it helped not to be able see the audience really. I read a couple of poems, the audience laughed in the right places, I relaxed, read some more; I read the last one, ‘Rhona the Rat Girl’. Applause. End of first half. I joined Hilary and Bill. I told Hilary that Jackie Kay was in the audience and could sign her copy of Bantam,so we went off in search. I know Jackie from having the pleasure, twice, of introducing her to our Poets&Players audiences, and she remembered. She hugged Hilary happy birthday and signed her book. She said how much she had enjoyed my work, especially my ‘alternative mother’ poems, and would like to buy Some Mothers Do…She asked us both to sign a copy while she went to get her purse. Oh Yes. Jackie Kay has a signed copy of our book. Let me tell you, it feels pretty damn good when one of your poetry heroes appreciates your work. I received positive comments from other audience members too.

The second half of the event was given over to a performance of ‘The Glass Aisle’, a collaboration between the Welsh poet, Paul Henry and singer-songwriter Brian Briggs. I loved the mix of poetry reading, then hearing the poetry set to music, sung to guitars. The poetry was lilting, nostalgic; and doubly beautiful when it was sung, what a lovely way to present poetry. After the event Hilary, her husband David, Bill and I went to the bar to meet up with MMU Writing School friends for a wind down. It was nearly 11.00 p.m. when we got up to leave. Brian Briggs saw us leaving and ran over to say how much he’d enjoyed my poems too, and did we have a book he could buy? How nice is that? Well, we did, so, with the door to the bar held open for our exit we waited for him to find the £8.99 in his pocket. In the end we said ‘just give us what you have.’ I actually have no idea how much he paid: it included a fiver, a one pound coin and a lot of small change, bless him. A perfect ending to the evening.

Hilary had brought Fiona Benson’s collection Vertigo and Ghost (Jonathan Cape 2019) to the Exchange. She’d been bowled over by this Forward Prize shortlisted collection and brought it to lend to me. So, being too high on poetry and Prednisolone to sleep after the Exchange, I was reading it in bed at 3.00 a.m. on Tuesday. It is indeed a fantastic collection. Buy it. Read it. I couldn’t put it down, read it through in one go; and will re-read it before I give it back to its rightful owner. I’ll probably buy a copy too. Trust me, it takes poetry to a whole new plane: startling and brilliant.

The rest of the week passed in refreshing mundane ordinariness. The thesis is with my DoS and support team, so I can’t do anything more to it until I’ve met with them. On Wednesday my daughter rang. She’s had an ear infection this week, so she was feeling ropey. She asked if we’d go into Oldham to collect her contact lenses: she’d just had an email to say they were in. So off we went to Specsavers to collect said lenses. Having searched through four drawers and the entire Specsavers online catalogue, the assistant couldn’t find a record anywhere. So I rang Amie—thank goodness for the mobile phone—and we were in the wrong shop! Her contact lenses were in Vision Express! So we went for a coffee before going to the right store to collect them. I took them to her house in the afternoon. She had that glassy look that she used to have when she had tonsillitis as a child. We had a brew together then I left and she went back to bed. When I rang the next day she was feeling better, still with earache, but her temperature was coming down. She took the rest of the week off work.

On Friday we came away to the Lincolnshire fens. Amie had hired a wooden cabin in the woods near Woodall Spa. I always thought Woodall Spa was somewhere in the west midlands, but no, it’s just a mile up the road from where we’re staying in Lincs. Amie is feeling much better, still dosing regularly on antibiotics and paracetemol, but improving every day. Yesterday we went to Mablethorpe to give the Cockerpoos a run on the long, sandy beach there. The wind was cold, but it was bright and dry. Apparently there has been some significant snow in the North West, so we’ve dodged that. It’s been lovely in Lincs. Later today we are going to visit Lincoln on our way home. Lincoln is one of my favourite cities: I did my first degree, BEd (Hons), from Bishop Grossteste College there in the eighties. I wanted to include a couple of photos of me relaxing on our weekend away, but the wifi here is almost non-existent; I don’t think it’ll cope with photos. Next week, perhaps?

So, I know now what life will be like post-PhD. I feel relaxed and happy. The stress for now is on the back burner, until I hear from the team with a meeting date. I’m beginning to look into book binding, preparing for the hard copy that must be submitted alongside the electronic submission, with a copy for myself, obviously. I can’t do anything about it until the team agrees that the work is done; and that might not be yet. But I’m preparing. The end is nigh, as the famous evangelical sandwich board says.

A poem: I’m going to give you a poem I read on Monday, an alternative mother poem from the book, one that was popular on the night. I first-drafted this at a Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich a couple of years ago, and it’s one of my personal favourites. I love a three toed sloth, that total disregard for action. A bit like me post-PhD; perhaps I inherited the attitude after all.

 

Alternative Mother #7
A three-toed sloth

 see yourself as someone who relinquishes
digits to evolution then patents
what you save in your own slow show

see yourself as acrobat
so your ceiling rose is hearth rug
the laminate floor your roof

see yourself as worshipper of inertia
so downtime is your vocation
daydreaming your life’s career

see yourself as passive philosopher
examining the energy of predator
and arriving at the ergo of leaves

see yourself as someone who could be
a human sin but can’t even be arsed
to crack a smile at the irony of it.

 

Rachel Davies
2018

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