Monthly Archives: February 2019

A PhD sandwich

My week started and ended with poetry; in between was PhD and life. A poetry, PhD and life sandwich!

We stayed in the Britannia, the worst hotel in Birmingham, last weekend. On Sunday morning I flooded the wet-room. Who would build a wet-room on the third floor and NOT angle the floor toward the drain? And anyway, the drain wasn’t working. As I showered, the wet-room slowly filled with water. By the time I finished we had the start of an indoor swimming pool. When I opened the door to leave the wet-room the water over-flowed the doorstep and seeped into the passageway outside. As long as the door was closed, the water was contained inside; when the door was open the water escaped over the step. Problem was, the door didn’t close from outside, it didn’t catch, so the door was permanently ajar when it wasn’t locked from inside. I couldn’t stay locked in the bathroom all day, could I? So I used my initiative: I put down towels to soak up the overflow. When we went out for breakfast, we reported it to Reception, who didn’t seem at all fazed by it, so it probably isn’t the first time it’s happened. I guess it was repaired when we got back to the hotel in the evening; but we didn’t use it again just in case. When I got home, Expedia asked me for a review of the hotel. I gave them one, an honest one; oh yes I did! If you’re ever in Birmingham, this is one hotel to avoid.

After breakfast we were back at the Old Rep Theatre for the Verve festival Sunday events. For us, it started with a workshop run by Vahni Capildeo. I was well outside my comfort zone in this workshop. It addressed ‘eco-poetry, geography and place’. For more than three years I’ve been writing poetry of relationship, my mother-daughter poems for PhD; so eco-poetry was coming from a different space. We read eco-poems and discussed the techniques the poets had used. Vahni had given us a sheet of tracing paper to overlay the poems and copy anything that struck us as important: odd words, phrases, words that would make shapes—leaves or waterdrops etc. Then we were asked to think of an event involving weather or place and write our own poem. I wrote about the Beast from the East covering our house last March, blinding the windows, cutting us off from the world. I placed my tracing paper over the first draft, and, serendipity, some of the words I’d traced fitted into my own poem in the place of words I’d first used. My very first eco-poem had some positive feedback from course members and from Vahni; I haven’t looked at it since, but I think it may be worth redrafting.

After the workshop we went to look round the shops in the Bullring for an hour, had lunch in John Lewis. At four o’clock we were back in the Old Rep for another workshop, this time with Liz Berry: her workshop was about ‘spells, charms and incantations’. It was somewhere in the roof of the theatre, up a continual staircase to the stars. We were exhausted by the time we got there. Liz Berry is one of the nicest people in poetry, so gentle and thoughtful. We read poems again, discussed how a poem is often a kind of spell, wrote our own charm-like poems. It always surprises me in poetry workshops how you can write poems you didn’t even know you had in you. I wrote a poem that will fit into my PhD collection, I think. I even know where it will fit. Amazing. The last task Liz gave us was to pick a shell, one of those curly whelk shells, from a bag of shells she’d brought with her. She gave us a small slip of paper to write a spell for ourselves, roll it up tight and put it inside the shell to carry with us. I won’t tell you what I wrote: it might be like a wish and not come true if I share it. It surprised me to find it in my handbag in the week, and re-read the spell on it. I’d forgotten all about it so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. Poetry is indeed magic.

At six o’clock we went to poetry readings by Moniza Alvi, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Alison Brackenbury, all very different in style and presentation. Moniza Alvi is very gentle in style, almost deferential. Her poetry is powerful though. Jacob is self-assured, a confident performer, funny and entertaining. Alison Brackenbury is just wonderful. She is one of those performers who remembers every word of her work; and although she had the poems in front of her while she read, she never looked at them, she made eye-contact with the audience throughout. That is a skill you see rarely. Her poetry is gentle and sensitive. It was a good last event.

We went to a Chinese restaurant for our evening meal; but there was some kind of delayed New Year celebration I think, because the restaurant closed at about eight o’clock and all the young waiters were heading for the clubs. We arrived at the restaurant just in time to order a main meal only. It was delicious, but at eight o’clock we were out on the street again. I was dragging my laptop bag around with me all weekend because I didn’t trust leaving it at the Britannia; so we were limited as to where we could go. Back to the hotel seemed like our only option, although it felt too early; we didn’t want to spend any more time there than we had to. We decided to pick up a bottle of wine on the way back to the hotel and drink it from the only vessels available to us: the coffee mugs in the hotel room. We’re nothing if not classy.

The next morning we were glad to pack up and leave. We had breakfast in a Pret at New Street Station and caught the train to Manchester at 10.30 a.m. We were in Manchester by midday, home before 1.00 p.m. My sons were visiting for the day so I went straight round to Amie’s when I got home and we all went out for lunch together. How lovely it is to spend time with family, especially when you don’t get together as often as you’d like. Mike stayed overnight and went back to his real life the next day. We had lunch again, at Amie’s restaurant, before he went home. I stayed on to do the books I’d missed doing on Monday.

Wednesday was the day I met my PhD support team. I had to be at All Saints Campus for 12.00 midday. I drove to the tram stop in Oldham only to find that trams were suspended from Oldham to Rochdale ‘due to a police incident’. It transpired that a young woman had been hit by a tram in Oldham town centre. I drove on to Hollinwood, beyond the site of the incident, thinking I’d park and ride from there; but everyone else had had the same idea, and there weren’t any parking spaces left. So I drove into Manchester. I parked in a multi-storey car park in Charles Street, which is within walking distance of All Saints. I had to park on the top floor: how annoying is it when large 4WD cars take up a space and a half? How much more annoying is it when it happens four or five times. I was thoroughly stressed by the time I’d parked, not at all in a mental state to conduct a PhD meeting. I had to sit in All Saints Park for five minutes to calm down before I met Antony and Angelica; who, incidentally, had also been delayed by the knock on effect of the tram incident in Oldham. It was a positive meeting but I’ve come away with more work to do.

On Wednesday I also received a sneak preview of the Owl Lullaby recordings from Ben. I can’t post them here yet because they’re only temporary; they’ll be posted on Spotify eventually and I’ll provide a link then. But it was good to hear them: the saxophone’s voice is very different with the application of the pedals, sort of eerie and gothic. My poem sounded good, although I don’t like listening to my own voice.

The week ended with Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery yesterday. I went to a workshop run by  Daljit Nagra in the morning. We looked at the prose poem; and at rhythm in poetry. We did some scansion. He pointed out there is no wrong way to scan a poem: it depends on your own reading of it. He said the only people who are wrong about scansion are the ones who think there’s only one right way to do it. We worked with the same poem presented on the page in several different forms, and this did make a difference to the way we stressed syllables when we read. Dialect also affects stress: I read ‘pre-war’ as two equally stressed syllables; some people read it with the stress only on the first syllable: PRE-war.

After lunch in the Whitworth café it was the afternoon readings. I introduced Blind Monk and Daljit Nagra in the first half. Blind Monk are a jazz trio specialising in the music of Thelonious Monk: tenor sax, bass and drums, a lovely mellow sound. In my introduction for Daljit, I said that his Ramayana was my favourite of his four collections; so he read from it, even though he wasn’t planning to. How kind is that? It was good to hear it read in several character voices. I first heard Daljit read from it before it was even a book, it was still in manuscript form. He read in Ilkley when he was festival poet there, and he had an Indian dancer on stage with him, interpreting his poetry in dance. It was a special event. After the break, Viv introduced Lavinia Greenlaw, who read poems about her father’s dementia. She is a lovely reader, clear and confident. What a lovely afternoon we had in the south gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park in the early spring sunshine. I saw lots of poetry friends too; always a good thing. The next event is on March 23rd, with Amy McCauley, Phoebe Power and Jacob Polley, with the harpist Rachel Gladwin.providing the music. Mark Pajak will be running a morning workshop, and I believe there are still one or two places left, so visit our website to book a place:

I don’t have a poem this week. I haven’t had time to redraft anything I wrote at the various workshops I’ve attended. Next week, I promise; but right now I have to go and knock on with the PhD work. Time is pressing.

Oh, oh, oh what a lovely week…

February continues to impress. I’m having  a ball.

On Sunday I caught the train to Stafford to meet my best friend from grammar school. We kept in touch for a few years after we left school, but lost contact when life got in the way. We found each other again a dozen or so years ago through Friends Reunited—is that still even a thing?—and we’ve been in touch ever since. I took Pauline a signed copy of Some Mothers Do… Her husband, Rob, took photos of the hand-over:


Photos courtesy of Rob Boler

On Monday, Bill and I were on the train again, to Leeds for the recording of my Tawny Owl Lullaby and Ben Gaunt’s music which inspired it. We had lunch at Bill’s Restaurant (obviously!) then decided to walk to the Leeds Art Gallery to see their Leonardo exhibition. It was a lovely afternoon, the kind of day that heralds spring; but when we got to the Gallery, it was closed on Mondays, which was a disappointment as it was the only day we were here. I don’t know if it is the cuts of austerity politics that caused it to be closed, but I’m guessing that won’t have helped. So we found ourselves in Leeds for the afternoon with no plans. First alternative: coffee. Second alternative: when we left the coffee shop I spotted a T K Maxx just up the road. I’m a trollop for TKM, so we went for a browse; and I found two lovely coffee mugs with a hand-painted three-toed sloth. One of my favourite ‘alternative mother’ poems is ‘Alternative Mother # 7: A Three Toed Sloth’, so of course, I had to buy those. There was a taxi rank just up the road from TKM so we got in a taxi and it took us to the Eiger recording studio. We were about half an hour early, but there was a picnic table outside and we sat in the lovely spring sunshine waiting for Ben to arrive.

Who knew music was such hard work? This is not a rhetorical question, the session was a complete eye-opener for me. We arrived in the studio at 4.15 and it was 7.45 before we left. Ben had hired saxophonist Lara Jones to play the music. She brought ‘Barry’, her baritone Saxophone—she called ‘him’ Bazza. He was beautiful: big and bold with a gorgeous mournful tone. He had flowers engraved down his bell. He was a lovely boy! She practised several times to warm up, and the effort required to make Bazza sing was evident. It takes a surprising amount of breath to play a four and a half minute piece on a baritone sax.


While she was practising, Paul Baily, the sound engineer was preparing his equipment.


To my untrained eye it was a complication of cables and boxes, culminating in a digital display on his laptop. But he knew where each cable led and what messages it carried. Lara had a pedal device for altering the tone of the sax: the only way she could hear the effect of the pedals was to wear headphones. So as she played, she heard the music through the headphones; heard the altered tones and delays the pedals produced. Of course, all we outside the headphones could hear was the real-time saxophone playing; but we could hear the difference when Paul give us a listen through a second set of headphones attached to his laptop. The difference between real-time and technologically altered sound was amazing. Lara and Ben are both perfectionists so they weren’t happy until they were happy. It took several ‘takes’ before they were both happy with their work. My reading of the poem took several attempts too. It’s surprising how many mistakes we make when we read/talk. These mistakes are the normal passage of speech, but in a recording they are a big deal. On one reading I almost made it to the end. The last line reads ‘a fading moon dims your hunting fest.’ I made it to the last word, which I read as ‘vest’: ‘a fading moon dims your hunting vest!’ That made us all laugh, the image of ‘death on silent wings’ in a hunting vest! Thankfully the next reading was word perfect and good to go. I can’t wait to hear the completed piece now. It will be published as a booklet: Ben’s music score on one side of the page, my poem on the other. The recording will be his music and my poem; then a combined piece mixed by another of Ben’s musician friends will record a darker version concentrating on the violence of the owl. It will be uploaded to Spotify eventually, and when it is, I’ll include a link here. Watch this space.

L to R: Rachel Davies, Paul Baily, Lara Jones with Bazza, Ben Gaunt

I had to work at the Black Ladd, Amie’s pub/restaurant on Tuesday to make up for missing my normal day on Monday. It was 3.30 p.m. before the books were straight; I got home, had a quick cuppa then I was out again to meet Hilary Robinson and Natalie Burdett for a workshop session. We met in the Molino Lounge in Oldham, took a leisurely evening over tapas and tea to read and share poems and get feedback. I took some of the poems I wrote at the Poetry Business writing day at Manchester Art Gallery on the Saturday before. I wrote a poem inspired by Sutapa Biswas’s painting/collage ‘Housewives With Steak Knives’, a depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali. Oh my, it’s a dark piece, but compelling:

‘Housewives With Steak Knives’ (Sutapa Biswas, Manchester Art Gallery Feb. 2019)

At the gallery, I looked, was repelled by it, left it alone; but it kept calling me back, and I wrote a poem about it, which I quite like. On Tuesday I said I wished I could find space for it in my PhD collection: Kali is a mother goddess tasked with destroying evil in the world, so she sort-of fits the ‘mother’ brief. Hilary suggested I make her an ‘alternative mother’ so she can earn her place, so that’s what I was doing on Wednesday morning at 5.00 a.m.: turning my Kali poem into alternative mother #19 and awarding her PhD status. Every poem I add alters the list of contents, so I have to deal with that as well. I can’t give you my #19 Kali, because she’s already ‘out there’ earning her keep. On Thursday I was dog-sitting Amie’s two lovely Cockerpoos so I took my MacBook and decided to do some submissions. Kali is winging her way to a poetry competition as we speak.

On Friday, Hilary and I came to Birmingham for the Verve Poetry Festival. It’s a lovely festival, very diverse and inclusive. We were booked into the Britannia Hotel, very close to New Street Station. It’s probably not the worst hotel in the world, but let me tell you Fawlty Towers looks five star in comparison. I could be kind and call it ‘fading gentility’; but its gentility faded eons ago. It’s grubby, in need of a complete refurb;  actually it’s a bit of a doss-house. But we only sleep and shower here, it doesn’t involve food, thank heaven. I had a shower yesterday morning, and no complaints there: it was forceful, like being water cannoned awake! It pinned me to the bathroom wall. And it is very close to the Old Rep Theatre where the festival events are being staged. We’ll know better next year.

On Friday afternoon we walked to the Birmingham Art Gallery to view their Leonardo sketches. It was open, so that was a bonus; and we didn’t have to queue as we had in Manchester, so that was good too. Still my favourites were his anatomical drawings: detailed sketches of the human hand, and the human leg compared with the leg of a horse, all with his right-to-left, mirror-writing notes around the drawings. Amazing to think these were done 500 years ago, they look so modern and fresh.

On Friday evening we went to our first event of the Verve Festival: a reading by Jane Yeh, Amy Key and Carrie Etter, three very different poets. Jane Yeh read the wonderful lines ‘Poetic cockapoos will serenade us with their thoughts/While beseeching looks shoot out of their eyes like lasers’ from her poem ‘Utopia Villas’. This resonated with me after my session of doggy daycare on Thursday! I bought Jane Yeh’s new collection—including that line—Discipline (Manchester; Carcanet, 2019)—actually it isn’t out for a couple of weeks so this is newer than new. I also bought Carrie Etter’s collection The Weather in Normal (Bridgend; Seren, 2018). I would have liked to buy Amy’s collection too, but money adds up; so Hilary and I decided to share the load. She bought Amy’s book and not Carrie’s; we’ll swap when we’ve read them. Of course, all books were signed. The evening ended with YoniVerse’s Golden Tongue, ‘a poetry night focussed on amplifying the voices of South Asian women.’ Amrit Kaur Lohia, a powerhouse of a voice, sang Punjabi and English folk. There was some performance poetry, some page poetry, a good variety of styles and some excellent work. And samosas. There were samosas.

Yesterday was a full-on day of poetry. I went to a workshop in the morning, led by writer Bernadine Evaristo. Bernadine is mostly a poetic novelist: she writes ‘verse novels’, which intrigues me. I read her novel Mr Loverman some years ago and loved it. This workshop addressed building character and narrative in poems. It was really useful. I wrote a monologue and a descriptive piece, neither of which is a poem yet, but both of which might well become poems in future. After a sandwich we went to a lecture by Anthony Anaxagorou addressing the page/stage controversy in poetry; how poetry on the page is considered by the poetic establishment to be superior to performance poetry; and how some performance poets feel ‘excluded and marginalised’ by the canon. It’s an ongoing debate, involving not a little snobbery; and as Anthony said in his lecture, poetry is a broad church, there’s room in it for all styles. It was a good lecture: vibrant and engaging. After that we stayed for a reading hosted by Bernadine Evaristo of women poets of African origin. Four young poets read their work: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Theresa Lola, Rachel Long and Momtaza Mehri. They were all fine poets, with compelling track records in publications and prizes. I would be happy to see any/all of them hosted by Poets&Players in Manchester in future. I bought Victoria’s pamphlet Girl B (Akashic Books, 2017). Sorry kids, your inheritance is being frittered on poetry!

The last event on Saturday involved readings by Sumita Chakroborty, Vahni Capildeo and Sophie Collins, again all fine poets and engaging readers; but by now my brain was waving the white flag. We left the festival after that and went across the road for beer and Indian food. There’s only so much poetry a girl can take in one day.

So there you have it. A week packed with poetry; a week that’s helping to see February out on a high. More than half way through now, and another big week coming. I’ve got this: February, you’re being beaten into submission.

I’m posting an old poem this week. I wrote it after reading Jane Yeh’s first collection, Ninjas. Her work is surreal, darkly humorous, often with a distinct rhythm and music. I tried to replicate these aspects of her work in this poem about sheep. When I was head teacher and we took the children on educational visits, they, little townies that they were, always got excited to see the countryside. ‘Sheeps Mrs Davies’, they used to call out whenever they saw any four-legged animals in a field; so ‘sheeps’ have a special place in my heart. Here’s my rather lame attempt at a Jane Yeh pastiche:


A Dozen Facts You Probably Never Knew About Sheep

They have uneven legs to walk on hills.
They feed on grass and dream of fish and chips

They have their lambs in spring so they can…spring
then bleat them nursery rhymes, but not Bo Peep.

They roll themselves into giant rolls of hay
and let their lambs run riot while they can.

They sometimes dress up as cows and horses
so it’s only if they bleat you know they’re sheep.

When they’re dressing up to look like horses
they dream themselves a jump over the fence.

They let the sheepdog think that he’s the boss
but flock knows it’s Grandma Ewe who pulls the strings.

Insomnia’s not a problem for most sheep,
they just count humans hurdling a fence.

They don’t like tweed suits and knitted real wool jumpers
so they hide their coats on hooks along a fence.

They wait for hours for a car on Saddleworth Moor
then cross the road as soon as one comes by.

Sheep can kill a driver with one malevolent stare,
I’ve died a hundred deaths at the eyes of sheep.

Rachel Davies
Ages Ago!

Kung hei fat choi

This week has been what I mean to make of all my weeks post-PhD. It has been full of poetry and friends. It’s the kind of week that makes even February bearable.

On Tuesday it was Bill’s birthday. I bought tickets for Mowtown the Musical for his birthday, but the tickets are for later in the month, so he said he’d like to visit the Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the Manchester Art Gallery and have lunch in town. And that’s what we did. We had to queue, even on a Tuesday morning, for about half an hour; but we’ve waited 500 years to see them, so a few more minutes was neither here nor there. Eventually we made it to the gallery where the small exhibition was held. The drawings are from the Royal Collection and are shared around several cities in the UK to mark the 500thanniversary  of Leonardo’s death. Oh my word, they were wonderful. As an ex-nurse, I was particularly moved by his anatomical drawings, and his drawings of the foetus in utero.



I learned that Leonardo was left-handed and that he wrote the notes on his sketches from right to left in a backwards mirror-writing. He found it easier to pull, rather than push, the pen over the nap of the paper. How fascinating is that? A few years back I fractured the neck of my humerus the day before my Stanza group was due to be recorded for Ruth Padel’s ‘Poetry Workshop’ on Radio 4. Ruth started with some warm-up writing activities, but my right hand—my write hand—was out of action; so I did what Leonardo did, and wrote with my left hand in a backwards mirror-writing. It’s a skill I taught myself when I broke my right arm as a child; and it’s easier than you think. You should try it. Looking at the notes on the foetus, it’s clearly a skill he perfected. I find it interesting that he was making detailed drawings of the human anatomy, and yet human medicine in the Renaissance was still based on Galan’s anatomy of the chimpanzee. How often in history has genius been ignored or sidelined in the interest of the status quo, or flawed public opinion? Let’s face it, it still is: climate change, the economy post-Brexit, the adverse effects of austerity on poverty and social fabric.  In the Gallery shop afterwards, I found a book of Leonardo’s drawings, which I think will help with some poems. £9.99 for ten drawings, yes that’s a deal; except when I got to the till it had been reduced to £2.00. It’s a book they’ve recycled: it marks the sixtieth birthday of the Prince of Wales, so it’s about ten years old. But that’s OK: the drawings in it are more than 500 years old. It felt like my birthday as well as Bill’s.


Wednesday was full of poetry. In the morning I was discharged from physiotherapy, where I’ve been having treatment on the damaged left shoulder. To be honest, the Prednisolone is probably as much to credit for the improvement as the physio, a fact the physiotherapist herself concedes, but she advised I keep up the exercises to lessen the chances of a repeat of the problem when I eventually reduce the Prednisolone again in future. That sounds like good advice. So, it was about 2.00 when I collected Hilary and we went to a meeting in Lydgate, an area of Saddleworth, to meet with the Lydgate Stitchers. They’d seen, in the Saddleworth Independent in the autumn, an article about the launch of Some Mothers Do…and were interested in doing a joint sew-in cum reading. They are doing some wonderful collaborative work, depicting the work of a local artist, Jill Harrison. This is her wonderful art work, depicting the development in history of Lydgate:


and this is a detail of how the Stitchers are depicting it in fabric:


We are planning to write a series of poems depicting the development of the fabric piece as metaphor for the development of the area. We’ll share the poems and the fabric work at a joint ‘launch’ in the summer/early autumn.

We went from Lydgate to Manchester for the second of Carol Ann Duffy’s series of ‘People’s Poetry Lectures’. The first was in the autumn and featured Gillian Clarke’s lecture on Dylan Thomas. On Tuesday it was Michael Symmons Roberts on W.H. Auden. It was a lovely evening: lots of poetry friends were there, including some I haven’t seen for a while. The lecture was really good too, delivered in Michael’s lovely soothing voice. It was interesting, intelligent and accessible. I was surprised to hear Michael say that Auden and Thomas were ‘near-contemporaries’, that there was only seven years difference in their age. I suppose I think of Auden as mostly a pre-war poet, and Thomas as a poet of the post-war era. Of course that’s rubbish, they both wrote in the forties and fifties. I love it when life forces me to reboot my assumptions. The next lecture in the series is on March 7th: Andrew McMillan  on Thom Gunn. I’m really looking forward to this one:

Get your tickets now, you won’t be disappointed.

And then yesterday. What a lovely, poetryful day I had yesterday! Hilary and I went to the Manchester Art Gallery for the Poetry Business Writing day, hosted by Peter Sansom. I love it when I go to a writing day worried that I don’t have a poem in me, and come home with the first drafts of about six. That was how it was yesterday. We worked from published poems as stimuli, as is usual for a Peter Sansom workshop. But he also sent us off round the gallery to use the art work as inspiration as well. Normally I find ekphrastic poetry—writing poetry from art work—difficult; but Peter gave us distinct tasks to do. We didn’t just sit in front of the art works and wait for a poem to arrive. In one task we were asked to just describe the artwork and see where it took us; on another to write fourteen-word poems from something happening in the artwork; and on another to find something that reminded us of an incident within our own families and write about that incident. It’s this last task that I’m going to include in my concluding poem today; about which, more later.


After the workshop, Hilary and I went to Chinatown in Manchester to find somewhere to eat. We called in at a shop specialising in Chinese art. I bought a hanger for my car: red with tassels and three plastic pigs. This weekend is Chinese New Year, and this is the year of the pig. I’m a pig, so it is going to be my year. I hope this bodes well for the PhD. I heard from my Director of Studies that the team is ready to meet and discuss my latest draft of the thesis: we’re meeting next Wednesday, 20th. I’ve been told I don’t need to prepare anything for the meeting, just bring along a copy of the critical work; so I’m hoping for good news.

Anyway, we found a table in Yang Sing restaurant and had a lovely Chines New Year meal before going on to Chapter One Books for the launch of David Tait’s latest collection The AQI(Sheffield: Smith Doorstop, 2019). David read from the collection, and Clive McWilliam—both poets are alumni of the MMU Writing School—read from his pamphlet Rose Mining (London: Templar, 2017). It was a lovely, relaxing evening. I bought, and had signed, both books; and on the ‘for sale’ shelves in Chapter One I found a hard-backed copy, still cellophane wrapped, of an illustrated Vita Sackville West book based on the Queen Mary doll’s house. It was a steal at £12.00. I’ll never be rich: I keep buying poetry!

So that’s it. I don’t like February, the end of that long haul of winter; but it has to be said, this February is being pretty impressive so far. Long may it continue. I’ll finish with a poem from the workshop yesterday. It is a fiction based in the task Peter gave us to find a poem that reminded me of something familial. I found John Everett Milais’s painting ‘The Flood’ in one of the galleries. It depicts a baby girl in a crib, with a black cat, floating downstream on a high river. Actually, it’s the very painting that one of my portfolio poems was inspired by, the poem that gives the collection it’s title, Dreaming of Pulling Teeth.Yesterday it reminded me of the sister who arrived without warning, to me at least, when I was six. My mother made her up a crib in the drawer from the bottom of the wardrobe, and I suppose the wooden crib in the painting brought this to mind. I really didn’t like this squirming, red-faced bawling usurper one little bit. Yesterday, I wrote this. I reiterate: it IS fiction!



What about this baby reminds me of you?
The hair’s all wrong—fair where yours was dark—
and the eyes are wrong—blue where yours were brown—
and the smile is wrong—you hadn’t time to smile
for red-faced crying.
The crib then, it’s the crib—
how I took yours to the banks of Whittlesey Wash
and launched you eastward to the sea.
And the cat of course—the cat was black.
I taught it tricks—to jump through a hoop,
to kick a ball, to sit on your face.
They said it was sibling jealousy.
It wasn’t.
I just never liked you.

Rachel Davies
February 2019.





February, off to a good start…

This week has been about 23 days long! Last Sunday I went to a late Christmas afternoon tea at Hilary’s sister Cath’s. It seems longer than a week ago. We had a great time: loads of food, a wide selection of teas, wine and gin. I don’t drink gin, but I tasted a fair few experimental cocktail mixes which the other guests invented. Cath’s dining table was groaning under the weight of food: there were cheese sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, pigs (and devils) in blankets, stuffing balls, pizzas, vegetarian paté, falafels, sherry trifle; Hilary’s Christmas cake is legendary. My vegan quiche was edible—I think it would have been better with eggs and real cheese, personally—but the vegan cheesecake was lovely: very creamy, rich and cheesecake-like. We all sang along to Mama Mia 2 after tea and blubbed like babies. I was on such a sugar rush when I got home, I couldn’t sleep.

Tuesday the snow arrived. We had to drive to Macclesfield for a funeral. Bill’s long-time friend, Jim, died from dementia earlier in January. They’d been friends since nursery school, seventy-five years ago, so Bill was particularly upset. We drove through several snow showers; it was wet and cold and miserable, as is fitting for such funerals. It was a sad day; but we met up with a friend we’d met on a holiday in Lesbos about ten years ago and who we’d lost touch with in recent years. It was a real surprise to see her: we’d forgotten she was also a friend of Jim’s wife, Audrey. We’ve agreed to keep in touch and meet up again soon. The drive home from the wake in Alderley Edge was through relentless snow. It took about twice as long to get home as it took to get to Macclesfield in the morning; it took more than half an hour to get to our village from Oldham, normally a ten-minute drive. I was relieved to park on our drive at last, even though we had to dig our way in. It should have been our January Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening, but I emailed members to cancel; we’ll defer our planned writing activities until the February meeting. We hunkered down in front of the fire instead.

Wednesday was the start of a wonderful week of poetry. Late last year I heard from a composer, Ben Gaunt, with whom I’ve collaborated on several pieces of work in the past. I first met Ben in 2008 when we were paired to work together on the Rosamund Prize, a collaborative event between Creative Writing MA students at MMU’s Writing School and the Royal Northern College of Music. We didn’t win the Rosamund Prize, but we’ve been in touch several times since then. We’ve had one piece, ‘Sounds of the Engine House’, inspired by the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, performed at the Bridgewater Hall. We had a collaborative concert at a church in Manchester a couple of Christmases ago when a group of my poet friends read poems to music from an ensemble of Ben’s musician friends. Then before Christmas Ben contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in another collaboration. He sent me a bassoon piece he’d written that he’d like me to write a poem to. He wanted a ‘daytime lullaby’, the piece was inspired by an owl. It is a haunting piece of music, sort of incremental steps, repeating with that lovely mournful bassoon sound. So on Wednesday I sat myself down, listened to the music again several times, tried to draw the pattern of it on paper. I researched owls, decided I wanted to write about the tawny owl, which is the one that has the famous owl hoot, at least the male does. The female responds with a ‘keewik’ sound. I found out that in some parts the tawny owl is known by the places it can be heard; as a result this became a repeating refrain in my poem: beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter. I researched ‘lullabies’ to make sure mine had the required elements. Obviously they are sleep inducers; but also a means of passing on cultural and social behaviours. All of this went into my poem. The musical piece is just over 4 minutes long, so my poem had to fit that time scale when it’s read aloud. I wrote it in three line stanzas (tercets) then decided it was better, more lullaby-like if I combined stanzas into sestets—six liners. The refrain comes between each stanza. I had three sestets in my poem; but when I read it aloud I realised I had used only about a minute and a half of the time. I decided it would work well if I made it a specular poem: a poem that is mirror-like, reflects itself backwards in the second half. So I tried it and, with minor modifications, it worked. I crafted the poem all day, editing, redrafting, changing a word here, a line-break there. I read it to Bill. He liked the poem but didn’t like the line ‘Unseen in your sleeping bag of leaves’: he felt ‘sleeping bag’ was too mundane; I thought about it and changed it to ‘eiderdown’, which I actually like better too. By the end of the day I had a poem I was happy with; no, I had a poem I was excited by. It fitted the music, it was read aloud in 3.5 minutes, a perfect fit for the music. I sent Ben a message to say I had a poem but I hung on to it until Friday morning, read it through several times to make sure I’d finished with it. I sent it to Hilary and she liked it too; she even liked ‘sleeping bag’. On Friday morning I sent it to Ben. I had a message back later to say he thought the poem was ‘magnificent’, that ‘it’s going to work perfectly’. Yay! I love it when things work out. We’re meeting in Leeds on February 11th, a week tomorrow, to record it in a proper recording studio. I’ll know more about the fate of the collaborative piece then. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, the first day of my least favourite month of the year, started with a trip to Oldham Royal Hospital for a dental consultation about the recurring root canal infection. Mr Boyd is a lovely man—I don’t routinely say that about dentists!—who has an interest in poetry. My appointment was at 9.15 so I expected to be out by 10.30. Silly, I know, but hope springs…I was called into the clinic at 9.30. Mr Boyd checked my teeth then sent me to the x-ray department for a full mouth scan. It was nearly 10.45 by the time I got back from there, then I had to wait to see him again about the result. He showed me the scan results, which revealed an area of chronic infection behind two neighbouring teeth. He talked about my options, the most appealing of which was to do nothing. He said whatever he did with that tooth would leave it in a weaker position than it’s in now: he actually said the tooth as it stands will probably outlive the patient, but if he does any work on it, he’ll weaken it. So he’s going to recommend to my dentist that we do nothing unless the infection gives rise to the need for antibiotics too frequently; then possibly to perform a root filling on the tooth next door, which might help. It was midday when I left the hospital.

At 5.30 I met Hilary in town. We met at Salvi’s, a small Italian restaurant on Exchange Square, where we had a lovely meal before going to the Manchester Writing Prize event at Chetham’s Library. What a splendid evening that was. We met up with lots of lovely poetry friends: the room was full of Manchester’s literati, including the poet laureate, whose original idea the Manchester Prize was. With prize money of £10,000 for each of the genres, this is one of the biggest writing prizes in the country; to be shortlisted is an event in itself. A friend of ours, Katie Hale from Cumbria, who we met through Kim Moore’s poetry courses, was on the poetry shortlist, so it was an exciting evening. Details of the shortlisted writers and their works—short stories and poetry—can be found here: and details of the winners of the fiction and poetry prizes, Gabriel Monteros and Molly Underwood respectively, can be found here:

It was a lovely, uplifting evening.

On Saturday I got down to some Poets&Players work. I processed the entries to our competition into my spreadsheet. Entries are beginning to come into my inbox at a steady rate, so if you like poetry, get writing and give me some work to do. You have until 13th March to get your entries in; and your poems will all be read by the wonderful Kei Miller. Details and competition rules are here:

I also brought my P&P evaluations up to date, processing the questionnaires for the January 19th event. I missed it, unfortunately, but from the positive evaluations I can tell it was another good one. If you missed it you can find our recording on YouTube, here:

So that’s it, another wonderful week filled with some sadness, some tooth angst, but mostly poetry and more poetry. Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate February, that dreary end to winter, the long dark nights and short dark days. But this year, I’m being positive, finding reasons to be cheerful. Reason to be cheerful #1, 2 and 3: POETRY, POETRY AND POETRY!

I’m going to leave you with the first stanza of my new poem, ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’. I won’t give you more than that because great things are expected of this piece of work so I’m saving it. But it is my latest poem and I love it, so you can have a taste. You might get the whole thing, including music, one day. I’ll keep it in mind.


Tawny Owl lullaby

The lantern moon has lit your feast
now sip the day, your sleeping draught.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east—
here ends your raptor’s midnight feast,
your croon of darkness, silent flight.
Yawn homeward to your morning roost
          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.


Rachel Davies
February 2019