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:https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2018-short-listed-poems.pdf and details of the winners of the fiction and poetry prizes, Gabriel Monteros and Molly Underwood respectively, can be found here: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition/news/story/?id=9405

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: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVJ7Uqgb9xk&list=PL426OGPKVF3OfAyncsynG0CNtMI7dtAus

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

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