Monthly Archives: March 2019

Optimism: my default state

When I was a headteacher, my staff used to say I was ‘terminally optimistic’. I could always see a way forward, however hard and negative the outside world tried to make me feel. PhD has tested that optimism to its limits. I have hit all-time lows in pessimism and negativity during my time on the PhD; there have been times I’ve come close to jacking it in and getting my life back. But, ultimately, ‘jacking it in’ isn’t can option because I know how bad I’d feel if I did. I set myself this personal challenge and I must see it through to the end, whatever that end is. I think, reading back over last week’s blog post, I’ve been feeling a bit negative recently, a bit down about it all? This week, I’m back in fighting mode, and I feel better for it.

I’ve been working on the secretarial stuff that’s necessary to a successful outcome. So on Sunday I printed off the bibliography and read the thesis through again to make sure my footnotes were all in the right order after all the cut-and-pasting I’ve done recently. There are prescribed ways of referencing: Manchester Metropolitan University uses the MHRA style of referencing, and footnotes and bibliography need to adhere to the MHRA style guide: first reference a full inclusion of the publishing history of a book, subsequent footnotes an abbreviated form. I ticked off the items on the bibliography as I first referenced them so that I could correct anomalies raised by reordering the work. There were even one or two publications I had omitted from the bibliography that I had to include; and one or two items I had in the bibliography that no longer had a mention in the body of the work. They had to go. So that was all relatively easy to sort out. Less easy was knowing if some items had a slot in the bibliography at all. For instance, I’ve referenced the NHS website over an issue in the thesis: I checked out the implications for albinism, following a reference in one of Pascale Petit’s poems. Does the web address for the NHS site then get a reference in the bibliography as well as a footnote in the body of the work? It doesn’t have a named author, but it is an authority I’ve accessed. The MHRA style guide seems silent on this. I opted for including the NHS web-address in the bibliography as well.

When that initial job was done, I went back through the footnotes with a nit comb. I printed off the relevant advice from the MHRA style guide that advised on the format of footnotes and checked through to make sure all my footnotes were written in the preferred style. I’m trying to be more positive this week, so I’m not going to dwell on the pedantic nature of style guides; but really! Most footnotes, for instance, have a full stop at the end of them:

Selima Hill, Violet (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1997).

But if you reference a web page, and you include square brackets with an ‘accessed date’, no full stop:

Sharon L. R. Kardia and Tevah Platt‘In your grandmother’s womb: The egg that made you’, at <https://genedoe.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/in-your-grandmothers-womb-the-egg-that-made-you/> [accessed 30thNovember 2018]

And those < and > signs you need to include at the ends of web addresses bring there own kind of angst, because they make the web-address that little bit longer, so it won’t any longer fit on the line it was happy to be on before you put them in, and it swings down onto the next line, sometimes without its < sign! So just this secretarial job is demanding of time and scrutiny. I was glad of the uplifting touch of poetry to keep me sane.

I’ve worked on the referencing in most of my available time slots this week, but on Tuesday afternoon, tired of the pedantic nature of footnotes, I took time out for some creative work and wrote up a poem from Vahni Capildeo’s workshop at Verve in February. It’s a poem about ‘the Beast from the East’, that awful weather event last year. I looked over the poems Jean Sprackland had given me editorial advice on and I printed off one of those poems, ‘Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard’, a poem in three parts. I took the Beast, and the three-part poem to a workshop with two poet friends, Hilary Robinson and Natalie Burdett, on Tuesday evening. This is the second time we’ve met for this purpose, at a café in Oldham. We had food first and poetry after. We all take poems for feedback. Natalie’s also doing a PhD from MMU, so she’s always good for support, bless her. And, like all good friends, Hilary’s always there when I need a sympathetic ear. The three-part poem is now a four-part poem: following discussion on Tuesday evening, I split the final section, placing the first stanza of that section right at the beginning of the poem, and altering the ‘you’ of the section to ‘they’ and ‘she’. I think it works better for it. The community of poets eh? Such a positive force!

On Thursday Hilary and I went to York. We caught a lunchtime train and were in York before 2.00 p.m. We went to Betty’s for a late lunch. We shared a bottle of Gerwürztraminer, so lunch took us about three hours. While we were there, a woman caught the little vase of flowers on our table with her handbag, and I caught the little vase of flowers in my lap; so I spent the rest of the day with a big wet patch on my dress. Luckily it was to the side: I’m reaching that age when large wet patches on your dress can be embarrassing. She was so apologetic, bless her, but these things happen; quite often to me, it has to be said! We were in York for a Litfest event: ‘Writing the Maternal’, a reading and discussion group featuring Liz Berry, Jessie Greengrass and Rachel Bower. It was a lovely event, complete with the visual aid of Jessie’s baby, Poppy, who entertained us with her refusal to take the event seriously. All three writers have addressed the issue of giving birth, and the impact of that on their writing. I have Liz Berry’s signed pamphlet ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, an astounding, powerhouse of a pamphlet. Liz read my favourite poem from the pamphlet, ‘Horse Heart’. It’s one of those ‘goosebump’ poems. You can access the poem here: https://www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk/liz-b/I bought, and got signed, Rachel Bower’s collection ‘Moon Milk’, which I look forward to reading soon. It was a lovely event, a little oasis of poetry in a manic week.

On Friday, mania reached a new height. I took my car for its first MOT on Thursday, but as I was in York on Thursday afternoon, I arranged to collect it on Friday morning. Unfortunately, the difficulty of communicating with the garage while I was out drinking wine and enjoying poetry meant I was late authorising the work that needed doing: a new front tyre. So it was Friday morning before I authorised them to replace the tyre. They promised to have my car back with me by the end of play on Friday. I got the phonecall at 4.00 p.m. to say the tyre they’d ordered hadn’t arrived, so it would be Saturday morning before I could collect my car. I was due to visit my friend Joan on Friday evening. We’ve been meeting up most months since we met on holiday in Italy in 1995: Friday was my turn to go to hers in Crumpsall. I rang and asked if she could come up to Saddleworth instead, so at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday we were driving down the very narrow lane from my house to go out to eat. Unfortunately, a car was driving up said very narrow lane at the same time and Joan had to reverse for some way to find a suitable passing place. Long story short, she burnt the clutch out in the effort, so we were stuck on a stranger’s drive with a car that wasn’t going anywhere. I used my AA membership to get help: help came in the shape of Chris, who sorted us out. He towed the car to a garage in Bury, Joan and I walked back up to my house at the top of the lane, we had a take-away and Joan stayed over.

On Saturday it was Poets & Players at the Whitworth. Bill took me to collect my car from its MOT hospital at 8.00 a.m. then drove on to take Joan home. I took my car to the tramstop where I met Hilary and we caught the tram to Manchester. We called at the Whitworth café for an impromptu breakfast before a workshop with Mark Pajak. Well, how good was that? We looked at the set-up and punchlines of jokes and applied those to poetry. I’ve never been to a poetry workshop before where the first job was to tell and analyse jokes. By the end of the workshop I had written a poem about hair, that I think might find space in the PhD collection. After lunch in the café, it was the Poets&Players event in the South Gallery. Rachael Gladwin was the ‘player’ this time. Rachael is a harpist and singer, so that was a wonderfully calming aspect of the event. Contrast that with Amy McCauley, our first poet. Amy is nothing if not entertaining. A poet and performer, she always comes up with something different. Yesterday she addressed Brexit in her own inimitable way: it involved Union Jack bunting and a good deal of political rhetoric. It was brilliant. This on the day of the big ‘People’s Vote’ march in London. I’m not going to get political; suffice to say if I hadn’t been at Poets&Players, I would have been in London. Manchester sent several coaches of supporters to the event. Amy’s performance was a form of support. Phoebe Power and Jacob Polley also read; I need to go back to read Jack Selfall over again after hearing Jacob’s hypnotising reading yesterday. As usual, this was a brilliant event with wonderful music and engaging poetry. The next event is on April 27th, featuring Mona Arshi, Will Harris, Degna Stone and Maryam Hessavi. These poets will be presenting their poems to our commission ‘Reimagining the City’; with music by Paula Darwish and Serpil Kılıç. It promises to be a good afternoon. Perhaps I’ll see you there? More details here:https://poetsandplayers.co

And as if all this wasn’t enough, I’ve been finalising the administration of the Poets&Players competition, printing off entries to send to Kei Miller on Monday. I met with my colleague at P&P, Viv Finney, to collect the postal entries and tomorrow afternoon they’ll be speeding towards Kei and the judging process. If you entered, thank you so much for your support, and good luck with your entry. The celebration event is on May 18that the Whitworth, details also on our website.

So, I’m going to give you the final two stanzas of the poem I took to discuss with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday. It remembers that sad time when my only brother died of appendicitis when I was fourteen, he was seventeen. It is actually formatted with lots of line indents to give a sense of panic, but as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting.  Sorry! I’m so comfortable with the changes in it I sent it straight back to Jean Sprackland when I’d edited it. I have some lovely friends, and they’ve been instrumental in returning me to my default state of optimism this week. Above and beyond the call, Hilary has promised to read my thesis again now I’ve altered it; and this despite a city break in Prague starting tomorrow. She’s taking it to read on the plane if I get it to her today. Thank you Hilary, and thank you all.

Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard (final section)

[…]

that sense of what the fuck
knowing God isn’t
they clung together
dumbstruck              heart shattered
for years
did they even shed tears?
I don’t remember tears
they never asked how we grieved
if we grieved
we got by together
facedafter this together

how often did she wish it was one of her
ten-a-penny girls
not her boy in the ground
not her only boy      lonely in his earthy bed
not her prince                       so strong
so beautiful      so young
so dead

Rachel Davies
March 2019

 

 

Frau Frankenstein and the Midwich Cuckoo

I’ve been working on the thesis. Again. I feel like a grotesque Frau Frankenstein, reassembling in a different order the parts of a body I took apart myself. Or a Hammer House plastic surgeon, promising a client I’ll make it beautiful—mwah ha ha ha—when actually, I’ve put way too much collagen in its lips, lifted its face until the skin’s taut and the eyes can barely blink; and the breast implants don’t match, one an ‘A’ cup, the other ‘Double D’! Alright, over the top, but you get the drift.

I think what I’m saying is: you can work on a piece of writing until you feel as if you’ve worked the life out of it, one redraft too far. That’s how I’m feeling about the thesis. I feel as if it isn’t my writing any more, that I’m working on it for someone else. It leers at me from the MacBook screen and from the surface of my desk, it’s in my head all the time so that I wake up in the morning, or ride the tram into Manchester, or prepare dinner with yet another idea for an edit forcing itself to the front of my consciousness. It’s like a modern day torture. I just want it to be over, but I’ll be back at my desk working on it again today, because that’s what my days are at the moment. I feel like a mother neglecting her child if I do anything else. Except this child is a Midwich Cuckoo, a child that’s mine but not mine. And, like a Midwich Cuckoo, it enjoys a special brand of vindictive.

Deep breath, and…relax! I think I need a holiday. I can see one just over the horizon that is the end of May. But even then I’ll have to be reading to prepare for the final assessment. I think by my birthday in July it might be over, for good or ill. Either way I don’t care any more, it’ll be over.

So, what have I done this week to make me feel like this? Well obviously, a lot of editing of the thesis. I’ve been working to my support team’s advice, and that is the problem and the solution in total. They gave me good advice; but I’ve had to modify the advice. I found it hard to make my subheadings the names of my focus poets, because where would the theoretical stuff go? With which poet’s section? Because the theory is necessary before I apply the theory to the analyses, isn’t it? So I’ve subbed the theory under its own heading, and now there seems to be a deal of theory before you get to the engaging stuff in the analyses of the poets’ work. I feel as if I should put in an illustration or a cartoon to break up the flow of text: alright, I’m joking! But I want to engage my assessors early on in the reading and I don’t feel as if it does that at the moment. But is that because I’ve read it through so many times there are no surprises for me any more? You see, heartily sick of it! And this is how I keep beating myself up.

Thankfully, although it’s hard to believe, thesis redrafting isn’t all I’ve done this week. It’s been an engaging week of poetry too. Thank goodness for the restorative nature of poetry. The closing date for the Poets&Players annual competition was Wednesday at midnight. I managed to keep the spreadsheet up to date this year by updating it in bed every night with the entries that arrived in the inbox that day. The last three days of the competition is always a bit manic as people beat the deadline. I took a day off the thesis on Sunday to print off entries, because the numbers were mounting up. It took me all day, with a break for lunch. Within an hour, the inbox was filling up again.

On Monday I heard back from Jean Sprackland about the poems I sent her. Jean is always spot on with advice and I find work on the creative aspect of the PhD an uplifting balm. Two poems she was less happy with I’d used in the thesis as examples of aspects of the theory. So on Tuesday, I took another look and decided one of them I could eliminate altogether. I deleted it from the collection, and rubbed it out of the thesis as if it had never been a thing. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t entirely happy with it myself. The second one I was less sure about getting rid of. 1) I quite like it; 2) it illustrates a particular aspect of the theory that no other of my poems could do. I decided to retain that one. She also suggested ‘Alternative Mothers’ as a title for the collection, as she feels, and I agree with her, that this sequence is at the heart—actually and metaphorically—of the whole piece. I’m happy with that. So I spent a lovely hour looking for a picture of a three-toed sloth to illustrate the cover. I found a photograph of one, hanging upside down in a tree, doing things my ‘alternative mother’ sloth does; and the good news is, it carried permission for general use, so no copyright issues. I wish all my days could be as rewarding as this one, working on the creative aspect: after all, I’m a poet, not an academic—oh, not even a little bit an academic!

Wednesday I was back to working on the critical thesis. I’d printed off the latest redraft to read through for error, cut and paste failures, flow of text. I read it on paper, edited it on screen. It took all day. As I was reading, I was making a list of jobs I still need to do to it before I send it off to the team at the beginning of April—although I’ve revised my own deadline: I’ll be sending it at the end of March. The beginning of April is becoming a full diary and it’ll be good to have the thesis out of the mix. One job on the list is to check for ‘topic sentences’, a phrase I came across in my research into ‘accessible academic writing’. A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph that sets the reader up to know what’s coming. Another, huge and vitally important job, is to check footnotes now that I’ve moved the text around. That’s going to be a biggy.

On Thursday evening, Hilary and I went to see Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester. She does a (nearly) one woman show called ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Bras’, about notable northern women who’ve been lost to history. Bras feature quite creatively in the show: they double as hats, nuns’ wimples, handbags; I don’t recall that they ever played themselves, except when they were hanging on the washing line. She has help from a video installation, with a wonderful actor, Joanna Holden, doing a half-decent impression of Hylda Baker; and Kate and Joanna form a Manchester group: ‘Oasister’. Brilliant. If you visit the website: https://www.hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/talks-poetry/kate-fox-news-where-theres-muck-theres-bras/you can watch the videos yourself. It was a lovely evening: fun, informative, entertaining; and with some good poetry too. If it tours a town near you, do go and see it, even if you’re not a ‘poetry person’ you’ll love it, I’m sure. Kate calls herself a ‘stand-up poet’ and that sums her up nicely.

I also heard from Ben Gaunt about the recording of my poem ‘Tawny Owl Lulllaby’, and his wonderful music that inspired it. He sent me the completed recordings. I think you can download a copy of each piece here. Let me know if it works. If not, I’ll try something else.

https://wetransfer.com/downloads/4cd20f59757b92e01e31524f27c3012a20190313091356/ac3126594d678a3dc5b865980f4a26b820190313091356/a58a97?utm_campaign=WT_email_tracking&utm_content=general&utm_medium=download_button&utm_source=notify_recipient_email&fbclid=IwAR05d2lfyh783rLhBuc8r8E308Ivwy9H95TaA6P8zn6p8tlfP4uJSI6cvKY

Saturday, back to the thesis, carrying out the ‘topic sentence’ job. I think I’ve got it covered. But I’ve read it through so many times, I feel as if I’m not really reading any more, just looking at little anonymous black words on white paper. I worked on it all morning, ticking jobs off the ‘to do’ list. By lunchtime my head was screaming to make it stop, so I printed off some competition poems instead, to give the aching brain a rest—we’ve had some cracking entries: if you sent poems, thank you. And good luck. They’re nearly ready to send to Kei Miller; only about fifty more poems to print now, a couple of hour’s work. I contacted Viv Finney, the colleague at Poets&Players who deals with postal entries. We’re meeting for coffee in Manchester on Wednesday to put them all together, then I’ll be sending them all on their final journey, always a good feeling.

A poem: I’ll give you the poem Jean wasn’t so sure about. I’d be really grateful for your feedback; I’m only half convinced of its place. It’s a reflection on my relationship with my own mother. Quite an emotionally distant sort of mother, she had nine children–eight of them girls–and I suppose when it isn’t what you dream for yourself, it’s hard maintaining emotional closeness with such a large family. I was happy enough in my own world anyway. Most of the time.

The Bat And Not The Ball

what if being loveless was protection
a carapace a breastplate a firewall

not disappointment at a missing member
not a statement about lack of love at all

for years it hurt to see you couldn’t see me
like the worn out pushchair waiting in the hall

I sulked because you tried hard not to know me
while you were as strange to me as Senegal

and what if I didn’t notice all you wanted
was for once to be the bat and not the ball

and consider this    what if chopping onions
turns out more rewarding than a smile

Rachel Davies
2017

 

One step forward…

Oh, I’ve been standing up to that thesis bully this week, but I haven’t defeated it yet. It’s a cousin of the creature from the abyss. I’ve worked so hard on it, only to find I have 2500 words to lose; or not, depending on the mood my word-count is in. It gives me differing counts, even when I haven’t changed anything. But I think I do need to précis a bit. I’ve already moved some less relevant, but interesting, text into footnotes, but a 2500 word footnote may be taking the **** a bit, don’t you think?

On Sunday I put all the carved-up body parts of my thesis back together with their new sub-headings, making sure the text flowed now they were reordered. I printed off a copy—I find it much more comfortable, and accurate, to read from paper—and started the long process of reading it through to make sure it flowed as a piece. I worked for five hours and was about half way through the reading at the end of the day.

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Rosie Parker likes to help when I’m working

Monday was taken up with a hospital visit with Amie that lasted most of the day—we got there early for her appointment, the clinic was running an hour late and then we had to wait again for her blood tests. Good news at the end of it all though, so that’s OK. We got back to Oldham after 4.00 and I went to put in a couple of hours at the Black Ladd, working on the books. I didn’t get it finished, but I did the important bits, like the wages and invoices that needed paying. Bill came at 6.00 and we had our evening meal there so I didn’t have to cook when I got home. I determined to go back the next day to finish off.

On Tuesday I had to go to the pharmacy in Uppermill to pick up some outstanding pills on my latest prescription. These are the corticosteroid, Prednisolone, I need for the Polymyalgia Rheumatica that returned with a vengeance in the autumn. The meds control the inflammation and its accompanying muscle pain and debilitating stiffness. When I called to fulfil the prescription after my latest doctor check-up I was given some, but not all: they didn’t have them in stock. When I called on Tuesday, they still didn’t have them in stock. The suppliers are rationing pharmacies to one box a day—that’s about a week’s worth of the drug in my case. My prescription was asking for six boxes. The pharmacist was apologetic: it’s all down to Brexit. Drug companies are stockpiling in case we run out post-Brexit. Now, I know Polymyalgia isn’t life-threatening, but it is ‘quality-of-life threatening’. Friends I know who have life-threatening conditions like asthma, epilepsy, diabetes are also having difficulties getting the meds they need. How can this be right? How can we keep honouring a dishonourable referendum in order to break the country and put people’s lives at risk. This is madness on a national scale. I despair for my country. Don’t get me started!

I’ll get back to the safer ground of PhD, thesis, poetry. When I got back from Uppermill I started work. I finished reading and editing the reorganised thesis to make sure it made sense. I was done by lunchtime. After lunch I went back to the Black Ladd to finish the books. I hadn’t got them finished last week, so I was determined to catch up this week. I worked until about 4.30, all done. So that’s one job I can strike of my list.

Wednesday I gave the thesis a rest: thinking time!
I worked instead on the online entries for the Poets&Players competition: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/The closing date is this Wednesday, 13thMarch at midnight, so if you were thinking of sending me some work, you still have time. I’ve been processing the entries into my spreadsheet in bed at the end of each day, but I need to be by the printer to print them off, code them and add them to the pile. It was the printing I did on Wednesday. But it’s a job that’s never done. You get it up to date and then some more come in. I’m not complaining, I love it that so many people enter our competition. But I do wish people would read the rules, and believe we mean to adhere to them: a piece of good advice for anyone entering a competition. It took me most of Wednesday to bring them up to date. And since then I have lots more to print off.

On Thursday I went into Manchester with Hilary for the third People’s Poetry Lecture, inaugurated by Carol Ann Duffy during her Laureateship. This one was delivered by Andrew McMillan and the subject was the poetry of Thom Gunn. I think Andrew is best placed to write the biography of this great poet, who has been largely ignored by the British establishment. He did the unforgivable and relocated to California after his Cambridge University days, where he was a contemporary of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Andrew has been to visit his home in California, met his life partner, seen the archive of his letters and papers. I look forward to the biography, which I’m convinced he should write. The lecture was wonderful and it reminded me how much I like Thom Gunn’s poetry. I want to go back and read him all over again now; when the thesis has been put to rest. It was good to see so many poetry friends there too; although the purpose of these lectures is that they are pitched at poets and non-poets alike. They are interesting and accessible, so when the new series starts in the Autumn—and I’ll keep you posted—why not come along? You might find you love poetry as much as I do.

I was back at my desk on Saturday, working on the thesis again. When I read it through earlier in the week, I realised I had an imbalance between my two featured poets, Pascale Petit and Selima Hill. I knew when I was first analysing Selima’s work I had more than I’d included: I had concentrated on the section about her use of the fetish and needed to see where she fits into the mask/mirror argument. So I went back to that original document, and of course there was lots in that to fulfil the brief. So I spent a happy day cutting and pasting work into the thesis, and editing it to make sure it fitted its space. I’m still not sure about it. I need to read it through again, edit, redraft, delete if necessary. But that’s what had put the word count 2500 words above my 20000 word limit. Funny, twenty thousand words seemed like a mountain to climb when I started; now I’m talking about cutting it down to size. Ho hum.

The other good news from this week is that I’ve been shortlisted in a rather nice poetry competition myself. I can’t say too much about it yet, but it involves a very young poem I wrote for Liz Berry’s workshop in Birmingham in February. It was a last-minute send. There’s still a long way to go, but watch this space.

A poem: I paid the balance on my hotel room in St. Ives. I’m going to Kim Moore’s poetry week again in April. Although last year we packed our bags in wintry Manchester and travelled to warm spring in St. Ives, so the clothes I packed were excessive. I had to buy tee-shirts. Last year they also changed the chef, who wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was. I wasn’t feeling too well while I was there, a noro-virus before I went that I wasn’t entirely over. So I wasn’t ready for the poached egg that decorated every vegetarian meal. My favourite was ‘ouefs meurette’, a swimmy concoction of vegetable bourguignon—with the inevitable poached egg. It still makes me queasy to think of it. By Wednesday I was asking for just a bowl of chips for my evening meal.  I wrote this poem on the train on the way home, turned it into an alternative mother in the redraft. It’s tongue-in-cheek; poetry is allowed to exaggerate! This all sounds as if I had a bad week, I didn’t, I was poorly. It was a wonderful week and I’m really looking forward to going again  in April. The hotel is basic, but comfortable, my room has a sea view. I love it; I wrote this when I was in a bad place, when food was low on my list of needs!

Alternative Mother #16

 Fawlty Towers

First up
your stairs are steep, your beds hard,
your pipes noisy, your showers cold,
your central heating thermostat so out of control
the clothes I packed in Manchester are sweat blankets.

And while we’re at it
your chef can’t cook.
Your porridge lumps could be amputated fingers,
your soup’s cold, your carrots so undercooked
they carry poignant memories of the garden.

And how could you even think it was a good idea
to have him sit half-poached eggs and mushrooms
on soggy toast in a pond of bourguignon sauce,
call it ouefs meurette
hoping I won’t notice it’s really
this morning’s left-over vegetarian breakfast
with gravy?

You’re clueless.
You tell people he’s got a Michelin Star
but you and I both know how he found it
on the greasy floor in Kwikfit.

Rachel Davies
April 2018

 

Stalker!

The thesis follows me like a stalker. It has been in my brain wherever I go, whatever I’m doing. I dream thesis, eat thesis, walk, talk, sleep thesis. The thesis is there, around every corner, waiting at the top of the stairs, lying in the bottom of cooking pots, mixed in with laundry I take out of the tumble dryer.

My task at the moment is to reorganise the thesis under sub-headings to make it easier for examiners to negotiate the terrain and tune into the arguments. Sunday I did the deed: I carved it up into body parts of thesis, saved each separate limb, organ and section in a separate document. After that act of vandalism, I had no idea what to do with it: what order will I stitch it back together? The analyses of the work of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit are, in my opinion, the most interesting and engaging sections; but I can’t lead with them to grab the examiners’ attention without first putting in place the theories underpinning those analyses. This single dilemma has invaded my sleep:  I dreamed I murdered my thesis, but I got off on a defence of self-defence.

On Sunday, I filled the RD9 form for the meeting last week; then worked on the creative section, ignoring the need to reorganise the critical section altogether. I updated the contents of the creative section in line with poems I’ve added recently; took a last look at poems I’ve redrafted in line with Jean Sprackland’s advice, highlighted the new and redrafted poems in the collection to make it easier for her to find them and sent it off to her again for comment. Is that section at least ready to submit? To be honest, this all seemed like an easy option to get me in the groove, a particular example of procrastination. It was easier to work on that than to address the big issues that were haunting me.

On Monday I had a day away from my study. I worked on the books at my daughter’s restaurant all morning, then in the afternoon we went to Peterborough to meet my son, Richard and a friend, Maria. It was midnight when we got home. I had a lovely day; but the thesis was in the back of my mind all day, that problem of sub-headings, like a kind of intellectual ear-worm. What if I…

I woke at 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday with the problem still pecking my brain—I use ‘problem’ here in the creative sense. I felt I was set a problem to solve, like a huge, creative puzzle. I had some wonderful ideas while I was asleep; but unfortunately I didn’t write them down so when I woke up I couldn’t remember what they were.

But if it’s hard starting something, I reasoned, just start it and see where it takes you. I went for another soft option: I worked on the introduction section, fine tuning it. It took me a whole morning’s work. By the end of it I wondered if it was any better than it had been before I started. And still I hadn’t addressed the real issue, the reorganisation of the text under relevant sub-headings.

I stopped work after lunch; called it ‘thinking time’, as if I haven’t had a brainful of that this week. Wednesday, I was diverted by life again. I did some more work on the introduction, sent it to Hilary for feedback to see if it was more focused than before. In the afternoon Bill and I went into Manchester for Bill’s delayed birthday treat. We ate at Mr Cooper’s in the Midland Hotel, then went to the Opera House for ‘Motown the Musical’. It was good: energetic and entertaining. Particular favourites were the actors playing Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. It was like revisiting the carefree days of my youth. But all the time the thesis was chewing away, stalking me. After the performance, I had Motown ear-worms to add to the annoying thesis ones. My brain is mashed!

It was Saturday before I had chance to work on it again. I decided to grasp the nettle and go for it. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to it/him/her. So I took each separate body part and worked it under sub-headings, starting with the theoretical bits. This required some editing to make it make sense without the body parts that used to surround it, so it was an intense morning’s work. I worked for five hours, with one short tea break. So far I have a ‘Mirror, mask and fetish’ section and a ‘The sonnet and Carol Ann Duffy’ section. I haven’t put them together in any kind of order yet, but I’ve made a start. I’m on my way. That bullying stalker is still there, around the next corner, but she’s leaving me alone for now.

So there you have it. If you’re doing a PhD you’ll have weeks like this. Weeks where the work seems too big, too aggressive, too damned cruel. You’ll wonder why you ever thought a PhD was an attractive idea. But you won’t give in because you’re not a quitter, and you’re so close to the end. I’ll be at it again later today, knocking that problem into shape. I won’t let it beat me.

A poem: this is one of my alternative mothers. I have written this sequence about women—and men—I know, women from history, women from literature; even places I’ve lived anthropomorphised into women. It’s been great fun to write them. This one was loosely inspired by the ‘sex for luncheon vouchers’ scandal of the late seventies. I took the idea of joyful sex work and played with it. I imagined having a mother who gets by on her natural assets; who doesn’t need to work because she has someone to pay her way. She just has to be available on demand. How embarrassing would it be to be a teenaged daughter under those circumstances?

 

 Alternative Mother #6

Cynthia

 There are days she doesn’t even leave her bed
except to got to the bathroom.

Last week she binge-watched all eleven series
of Vampire Diaries until she could taste blood.
She looked at me like I was a roast beef dinner
cooked rare.

If she does make it downstairs
she lounges in her D&G leopard-skin onesie
in the Barker and Stonehouse leather recliner
paid for by the sugar daddy. She’s never worked,

thinks she’s Kim Kardashian, the world comes to her.
And the world wouldn’t want to offend her:
she wears a grudge like a body-con.

I don’t remember her ever actually using
the Bugatti touch-sense kettle or the electric Aga
in the kitchen. We mostly eat Domino’s,
McDonalds, take-out from The Great Wall.
She flirts outrageously with the Deliveroo man
who pretends he can’t speak English.

My friends never visit.                    I don’t invite them.

Rachel Davies
2018