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.