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: https://poetsandplayers.co

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.

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