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.
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