Monthly Archives: April 2019

Please make it stop!

I started this blog to reflect on ‘PhD, poetry and life’. It seemed a long three years when I started the PhD, now, suddenly, the finishing line is in sight. But I’m a bit stuck, like in one of those dreams where you know you have to run, but your feet are held in thick, black molasses and you can’t move forward. I can see the end, but I can’t seem to get there. This week, it’s been all about the finishing touches; but I’ve been ridiculously ‘trial and error’ about it. Having incorporated three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection, I edited the poetry collection’s contents page to reflect the changes. Then, yes only THEN,  I decided I needed a contents list for the whole thesis, so I wrote that. And, of course, as any sensible, rational person would have seen but I didn’t, adding that contents page shunted everything up a page, so the collection contents was out of sync with the page numbers and I had to edit that again! At least I hadn’t edited the footnote references to the collection poems; so that’s the last job I have to do. I hope. A meeting has been arranged with the support team for this Tuesday; will it be my last, or will I come away with more work to do? I’m like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods for his hubris by being made to roll a huge stone uphill, just for it to roll down again when he reached the top. He had to keep pushing that stone uphill for eternity. Perhaps my own boulder is that contents list, those footnotes. And all because I wanted a PhD I didn’t need and have no intention of using: hubris. Later today I’ll be editing the footnotes. Let that be the end of it. Please let that be the end of it!

Thankfully, there is poetry; and there’s been a lot of poetry this week. On Tuesday, I went into Manchester with Hilary to meet up with another poet friend, Natalie Burdett. We met at Gorilla in Manchester for lunch and to workshop some poems. Hilary and I took poems we wrote recently in St. Ives, at the writing week hosted by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. Natalie is currently doing a PhD from MMU as well. Her theme is geography and place in poetry and she brought three ‘place’ poems about her hometown in the midlands. Natalie’s poems are vivid descriptions, almost filmic. It was a good meeting with useful feedback. I took poems I thought were quite weak; but their feedback made me think they might have legs after all. I’ll be revisiting them later today, when I am planning to submit some poems to competitions. I’m not sure these poems be included, but they’re not definitely excluded, so that’s a step forward.

I also sent out my stanza mailing this week. Our Poetry Society Stanza meets every last Tuesday of the month at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; our next meeting is on Tuesday of this coming week. We are having an anonymous workshop this week: members email a fairly new poem to me by an agreed deadline. The poem must be one the poet would welcome feedback on: I remember one workshop where a poet brought his magnum opus to the group and got very upset when we offered constructive feedback. He thought it was perfection on a page, it had been published, he said. Well, why bring it to a workshop then? It’s not a space for polished poems. I put all the poems I receive into an anonymous document and send to all poets who submit and I’ll be sending that document out later today to give folk the chance to read and make notes before the meeting on Tuesday. It works well, because if you don’t know who wrote a poem, you’re less likely to be cagey about offering feedback, so it really is constructive. I’ve received six poems this month, which is a result, given that our group has been on the ecological red list, facing extinction in the recent past; especially as I also received two apologies from members. We are still on the endangered list, but I think we’ll survive.

Yesterday, Saturday, was Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Every year we commission new poems, inviting chosen poets to write poems to a particular theme. This year our commission was ‘Reimagining the City’. We invited Mona Arshi, Degna Stone, Will Harris and Maryam Hessavi to respond to the commission, and their poems were truly remarkable; the poems are available on our website:  Yesterday the poets read these poems, and other of their work, to a large audience in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park. It’s a lovely venue, but the weather was awful yesterday, so the squirrels and parakeets had stayed indoors out of the rain and wind. But the poetry was lovely; Mona Arshi read for the first time from her new collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry, 2019), which is published on Tuesday 30thApril. This was her first reading from this fantastic collection. You can order a copy here: The ‘players’ this month were Paula Darwish and Serpil Kiliç, two musicians/composers of British-Turkish heritage. They sang Turkish/Kurdish folk songs, accompanied by a guitar and a kind of Turkish lute or bouzouki called a baglama. Their singing voices were astounding, it was a lovely accompaniment to the poetry. You can find samples of their music here:

So, that’s another good week. In between all this I’ve been fighting microbes, mostly successfully I think. I feel as if I’m winning in the lymphocyte wars anyway. I can’t afford to let the enemy in at the gates!

Here’s a poem: another one I wrote in St. Ives, one I took to the workshop with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday.  The exercise was to address a group of people in the poem: I chose to address that group of people who think us oldies should just go away, not be seen. I have an allergy to the uniform of the aged: it brings me out in hives, I won’t wear it, ever. I won’t be invisible, ever. This is a tongue-in-cheek poem about that, about not being invisible; it has humour, but it carries a serious message. Rise, all you ageing women, rise and be seen; rise and be disgraceful!

Growing Old Disgracefully

 I won’t be the one you decide I should be.
I’ll wear my glitter Docs, patchwork jacket,
that pink and tangerine top over slick black tights.
I promise you mutton dressed as lamb is not how
I see myself.

I won’t wear your uniform of the silver vote,
I won’t wear magnolia paint or
barley white to blend in with your walls.

Invisibility isn’t a default state for women over sixty.
Keep your beige, keep your Damart; keep
your Brevit shoes and Velcro slippers,
your flesh coloured NHS frames,
your Regatta fleeces, bland windcheaters,
Pakamacs and Rainmate hats;
stuff your amorphous crimplene.

Give me Airwair, give me Red or Dead
give me colour, pattern, flair, hear me sing,
watch me dance. I want to be shocking.

Beware: one morning you’ll realise
you stacked year upon year
until it’s the uniform or be damned.
I promise you I’d rather be damned. Loudly.
And visibly. Outrageously
and with disgraceful panache.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Regressing to Normal

It’s started. That feeling that I am allowed to do other things. That post-PhD feeling. Again. It’s not even anti-climax: it’s more excitement at being able to do mundane stuff and take my time doing it because there’s no deadline. In other words, I’m regressing to normal.

Hard at work in St. Ives: photograph by John Foggin.

Sunday was spent travelling back from St. Ives. It was a thoroughly miserable morning as we waited for the train from St. Erth to Plymouth: cold, barely above freezing; and wet, the rain was lashing. An appropriate day to leave a wonderful week, really; like leaving summer behind and falling back into gloomy winter. Our journey was uneventful; which was more than could be said for the poets who went home on the Saturday. Most had horrendous journeys of delay, cancellation and general disruption. So we were lucky to have booked that extra night. We had a lovely picnic of disgustingly unhealthy snacks including a small flagon each of Scrumpy cider Hilary had bought at the cider farm on the last day of the holiday.

A little light picnic for the train.

We were in Manchester by 5.00 p.m. and home by 6.00.

This week I wrote the ‘front matter’ as they call it on my Kindle, for my thesis: the pages that tell you about the body of the work. I wrote the title page and acknowledgements, put them together with the 300 word abstract, placed them at the front of the thesis. I also placed three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection. So now all I need is to edit the contents page for the poetry and the page numbers in footnotes that contain references to the poetry collection; add an overall contents page and voila! I hope it’s done. I sent the new poems to Jean Sprackland, just so she’s aware that I’ve added them since we last spoke. I’m waiting on a meeting with my team re. the redrafted thesis I sent them, but given that it has to be submitted by May 18th, I’m hoping it’s about done. I hardly dare think so, but I hope it’s done.

So, apart from that little burst of academic activity, my week overall has been mundane. I’ve started to clear up my study. It looks like an intellectual war zone: books and paper copies of the thesis on my desk, and on the sofa awaiting the shredder. I had a big shred-fest on Good Friday. I felt like an assassin shredding working copies of the thesis, but I have them all, saved at the various stages of redrafting,  stored in the iCloud. I kept one copy, the latest; and I kept the copy that my Director of Studies had annotated by hand; and I kept the page of advice I was given last time I met with the team. But all other paper was shredded and binned. I filed letters, put books back on the bookshelf: I have too many books now, need more bookshelves. It’s the scurge of a bibliophile, the continually growing need for book shelf space. Because we can keep buying and reading books in perpetuity, but we can’t bear to get rid of any. It would be like getting rid of friends. So I now have books piled in front of books on the bookshelves. I know I’m not the only one.

I’ve also been batch cooking. I bought lots of veg when I shopped this week, so I spent Saturday making vegetable and lentil curries, pasta sauces, casseroles. I even managed to get them into the freezer the same day. I am a domestic goddess. In short, I have glimpsed the future and it is domestic. At the moment, I like it; I expect to get bored with it very quickly, but for now it is a refreshing, and relaxing, respite from four years of brain work.

So that’s it, a week of winding down. A week of life-post-PhD practice. A glimpse over the parapet into a future without study. I have lots of non-academic reading on my Kindle; but I’m saving that for after the assessment. I still have to keep in touch with the academic books until after the external examination. The Handmaid’s Tale and other reading treats can wait a few more weeks.

Here’s another poem I wrote in St. Ives. For this poem we had to think of a significant incident from our lives and write about it for ten minutes; just tell the story. Then we left it alone for a while. Later we had to tell the story again without looking at the first draft. Then, referring to both drafts, we had to weave them together into a unity. I wrote my first version in the first person; the second version in the third person. So my ‘weaving’ is between viewpoints, first person in italics, third person in plain font. It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t think this is the best example of it, but it’s the only one I have.


Loaded Questions

Look carefully, you might see a young girl picking violets
under the hedgerow by the bus stop. You might know
Dad’s in hospital again, recurring chest infection.
You might be surprised I’m not concerned:bed rest,
antibiotics. You might be surprised: I’m picking violets
a posy for her mum, perhaps. You’ll probably hear that
recognisable grind of diesel You might hear the bump
of something solid bouncing on the flatbed. Look,
a Land Rover, pulling up behind her, are you concerned?
You should be concerned. Oh Lord, it’s Mr Battersby,
the boss, oh lord he’s going to speak. Listen to the driver
ask how’s your dad. I’ve/she’s been taught to tug a forelock,
show respect. How’s your dad, he asks again. You’ll see
she’s flustered. Well…he’s still got pneumonia. As if
the boss doesn’t know it’s only been two days. He’s still…
You’ll see she’s flustered, as if…I’m trying to defend him
from something but she doesn’t understand what it is.

Rachel Davies
April 2019




Poetry, cider and an excess of seagull poo

I’m in St. Ives in Cornwall. Hilary and I travelled down here by train on Sunday. We had to change trains at Birmingham New Street. The train was packed and as we were trying to get off the train, other passengers were pushing to get on. Someone helped us with our bags, but I nearly got knocked over on the platform, which was crowded with people so you couldn’t move out of the way; in fact it was only the density of people that saved me from falling. They were all wanting a place on the train I’d just left, but there wasn’t any space on the train, so they couldn’t get on until someone got off anyway. It was chaos, so we upgraded to first class for the rest of the journey. It cost us £15 each. Well, be rude not to. We arrived at the hotel on Sunday evening, in time for the evening meal.

I’ve been on a poetry writing course led by Kim Moore and Carola Luther which just got better as the week went on. I’ve had a room with a sea view. The weather has been lovely, sunny and [mostly] warm. The food has been good this year. The hotel took on a new chef team in the autumn, and the food has improved no end. It was so good I think I’ve gone up at least one dress size. And all worth it for the poetry. It’s been a wonderful week; and I have some new poems that I’m excited by.

The theme of the week was ‘Intimacy, distance and perspective’ in poems. We met as a group on Monday at four o’clock: our daily cream tea time. At 4.30 we started the first workshop, exploring what the words of the theme mean. We didn’t do any writing in that workshop, but Kim set us a task to work on in our own time: to write a ‘meandering’ poem, one that wanders around its own country lanes to get to its point. I wrote mine in bed on Tuesday morning, early, while the sun rose over the sea. I wrote it with a pencil, in my notebook. I often write straight from the keyboard, but it’s difficult to meander at the keyboard, the inner editor is too close to the surface, so I wrote with a pencil, then typed it up on the MacBook.

Tuesday and Wednesday Carola and Kim ran workshops that involved reading and discussing poems and then writing poems inspired by our reading. On Tuesday, I wrote a couple of drafts that might become poems in the future; by Wednesday I was warming up, drafting poems with ambition, poems I could see making something of themselves. I wrote a poem about being lost in the book, in my case Alice in Wonderland.I like that draft already, not far to go to be complete. Thursday was a bit different. We had a discussion about Frank O’hara’s ‘personism’ style of poetry, a style that requires the intimacy of writing to one other, as you would in a letter or postcard. We read a lovely O’hara poem, ‘The Day Lady Died’, to illustrate his ‘personism’. Then we were sent into St. Ives to observe and write our own poems in the personist style. Hilary and I sat in a beach bar with a Rattler Cider, observing and taking notes. A woman digging like she meant it in a huge hole she’d made on the beach turned up in several of the poems. She was extraordinary, throwing spadefuls of sand behind her like a mad thing. I wrote my poem when I woke at 4.00 on Friday; it’s a productive time of day for me, and I have a poem I love. Yup, the woman in the hole is in there. It needs a bit more work, but it’s almost done.

As well as the workshops, we have been meeting daily in small groups to discuss and offer feedback on our early drafts. This was really useful. Sometimes you are too close to a poem, you can’t see its flaws. Of course, it’s your poem and you don’t have to act on the feedback, but at least you have your eyes opened and can implement the advice or not; you can act on some of the advice, all or none of it. On Friday morning we met as a whole group. We had to bring one poem from the week to read to the group and have it discussed and critiqued by the group. I took the poem I’d written at 4.00 a.m. and the feedback I received from the group was really useful. I’m quite excited about this poem.

Apart from the writing, there were readings organised for the evenings after dinner. Kim and Carola read from their work on Tuesday evening. Very different poets, their readings were wonderful. On Wednesday, Ann Gray came to read. Ann won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2018; her pamphlet’s called I Wish I Had More Mothers(Smith Doorstop Books, 2018). So I had to buy that, get it signed, didn’t I? Ann read from her two collections and the pamphlet. On Thursday, course members read two poems each of their own work that they’d brought from home. I read a couple of my ‘alternative mothers’. On Friday we read a couple of poems we’d drafted from the week. These were good evenings, such a variety of poems from fourteen poets. And interesting to see how fourteen poets can come up with fourteen distinct solutions to the same prompt. It was fascinating to try to match the poems people read to the prompts from the week. The woman in the hole in the beach was a give-away in some of the poems; others were less easy to spot.

There has been free time in the afternoons to do the ‘holiday’ bit. Hilary and I walked into St. Ives two or three times, looked in the lovely shops, spent money we didn’t intend to spend on things we didn’t need but we wanted. I’m going home with four new tops, a skirt and two pairs of earrings I didn’t bring with me. On two visits to the town centre we were pooped on by seagulls and had to come back to the hotel for a shower before dinner, and to wash clothes that were bombarded. They keep telling me it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird; perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket?

Yesterday, most of the poets went home after breakfast, but Hilary and I stayed an extra night. We went to the Healey’s cider farm, home of the Rattler cider, between Truro and Newquay. We took the bus to Truro then a taxi out to the cider farm. Oh my, the bus. We were abused by an old man for sitting in the seats reserved for ‘older passengers and those less able to stand’: we both have our own mobility issues, not that it’s his business. As he came down the bus to sit in a similar seat across the aisle, he said we shouldn’t be sitting there, we weren’t disabled. Hilary showed him her walking stick and he said a walking stick didn’t mean anything. He kept moaning on to the man next too him about us taking up the seats reserved for old folk—I’m 72 by the way—even though the man next to him looked about sixty, didn’t even have a walking stick and appeared able bodied. After a couple of minutes I said to him ‘excuse me, would you not talk about us, you know nothing about us.’ Bloody women, he snarled, so perhaps it was gender and not invisible disability that offended him. Bloody misogynist, we might have said but didn’t. The incident didn’t spoil our day. At the cider farm, we had a ride behind a tractor around the orchards; toured the production line and museum; tasted lots of samples; and had a complimentary pint of cider with our cream teas at the end of the tour. The taxi collected us at 3.00 p.m. and we took the relatively uneventful journey back to the hotel.

It was strange in the hotel last night, all the poets had gone and just Hilary and me left of our group. We felt a bit bereft until a lovely couple from London joined us at our table. We got to talking, and by the end of the meal, we’d sold them one of our books, so that was nice. Poetry is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

I’m going to give you a poem from the week, so naturally it’s an early draft. I don’t know if it will mature, if I’ll develop it or leave it as it is. Either way I’m not planning on sending it out to earn its keep any time soon. But it was fun to write. It’s a poem that addresses your own body directly, and I guess poems don’t come more intimate than that. Here’s mine:

Oh, Body

I’ll not give up on you
now you’re no longer pert.

He said my stretch marks were beautiful,
a poem on childbirth. Body, you and I both know

that’s bullshit. Poems are art and you, Body,
are science, a physiological record of degeneration.

You started to die the minute they cut
the umbilical cord. But dying, I’m pleased to say,

is a slow process. And long may it continue.
I’m sorry I didn’t always put you first:

I broke you, cut you, squeezed your feet
into too-tight shoes, soaked you in long hot baths.

On the whole, though, I think
we’re doing alright, Body, you and me.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

*insert smiley face emoji*

Last Sunday I worked like mad to get every aspect of the thesis finished. I think I’m happy with it, even though I know there is still work to do. In the afternoon, I sent this latest draft off to my team. Which is good because I’m off to St Ives with Hilary later today for a week of poetry in workshops run by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I’m so excited, I actually started packing on Friday, which is a first for me; I’m a last minute packer normally. I copied Jean Sprackland into the email so she can have an idea how the creative interacts with the critical. It’s gone. I can relax again for a couple of weeks, I thought as I pressed send.

Wrong. I decided to fill the days following with finding out about presenting the thesis for submission. It requires a title page, obviously; but what does that look like? And what else will I need? I checked out a few theses available online to see what they contain. One, from Goldsmith’s College, had a title page, an abstract, an acknowledgements page, a list of contents. I searched the MMU website for the establishment minimum and couldn’t find anything at all; so I emailed the woman who is designated a point of contact for queries such as this. She sent me some good advice and a copy of the Post Graduate Research Handbook. How had this passed me by? It stands to reason there had to be one, but I didn’t give it a thought. I need a title page, an abstract and acknowledgement of any published work relating to the thesis. It was really useful; and especially, being a PDF file, the links in the handbook were clickable, so I found my way to a couple of MMU thesis abstracts. Then I started stressing all over again about academic language. It scares me. Some people are more than competent at it, I’m not.  So my problem on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was how to describe my twenty thousand words and its related creative collection in 300 comprehensible but fairly scholarly words. In the end, I did what I always do: I just wrote it, in plain English. Writing is communication, so accessibility is the key for me. I wrote 300 words and sent it off to Hilary for comment. She has read the thesis. Twice, bless her. So she is best placed to assess whether the abstract correctly reflects the thesis. She said ‘yes it does; and I understood it!’ So, I’m buying her a Rattlers cider on the beach on Monday. I sent the abstract off to the team, with a view to discussing it at our next meeting. I can go to St Ives without taking the thesis and the angst it causes, not even virtually. It’s out of my head.  Hopefully I’ll have a relaxing break, eat scones, drink cider and write some brilliant poems—not necessarily in that order. Well, three out of four ain’t bad!

Yesterday I went to read at Saddleworth Literature Festival with Hilary. It was based at Saddleworth School in Uppermill this year. Hilary and I had an early afternoon slot. We met up on Tuesday to discuss our input over coffee. We planned to read from Some Mothers Do…kicking off with a couple of Tonia Bevins’s poems from the book; unfortunately Tonia died before she had chance to see her poems in print, so we always share some of her work whenever we read from the book. Then we planned to perform a duet on one of my poems, ‘Motherhood’ and one of Hilary’s, ‘Jean, the tree in the wood’. They’re poems with two voices so it makes sense to share the reading. We agreed a fifteen-minute slot to read our own work followed by a book signing at the end of the session. I charged up our little ‘Madonna’ mic in case we needed it; and spent a couple of days practising my reading in any spare time slots. I like to be prepared.

Suffice to say, Saddleworth Literary Festival is not one of the big ones. They’re still using banners from three years ago, with A4 paper alterations over old dates etc. We arrived at 12.45 for 1.00 p.m., got the room ready as we wanted it, had a complimentary cup of tea and waited. And waited. No-one came. No audience, no member of the organising committee to see if we had all we needed, or to welcome/introduce us. We waited until 1.30 and then we left. We should have been wary after that festival three years ago, but we decided to give it another go. One year of poor organisation is beginners’ bad luck. Two is incompetence. We won’t be accepting another invitation until they get some writers on the organising committee and access funding streams. We went to the local garden centre for a bite to eat and sat out in the lovely April sunshine. At least we enjoy each other’s company. *insert smiley face emoji*.

Lastly, the upfullness of a poem. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago at the Poets&Players workshop run by Mark Pajak. We talked a lot about how poems resemble jokes, in that poems, like jokes, have a ‘set-up’ and a ‘punchline’. The only writing activity on the day was the last activity before lunch. Mark gave us a list of poetry ‘punchlines’ and asked us to write a poem towards one of them. I chose the first punchline on the list, it spoke to me straight away. As a child I had this headful of truly unruly curls—I still do. Not smooth, Shirley Temple curls, more like an explosion in a wire wool factory. It’s why I keep my hair very short now: I have to show it who’s boss around here. Anyway, you’ll understand how much I hated my hair when I tell you I always wanted to have long, straight, blonde hair, kink-free and Swedish looking, the very opposite of my own mane. At grammar school there was a boy in my class, Peter, I really fancied him. I got my mum to let me go for a shampoo and set, as it was called then: your hair pulled tight onto rollers to tame it and shape it. I felt like the bee’s knees when I came out, my hair was constrained! In school on Monday morning, Peter Brock—yes I’ll name and shame him—asked me if the crows had left the nest.  I was mortified! Anyway, the first punchline on the list was ‘I tried it on, of course/but no.’ I don’t know the original source of the quote, but it was a give away for this true story. Here’s the poem:



an explosion of black
Afro unruly
filling the house like a mattress
butting jokes about crows and nests
making school photos manic.

Kathleen Kilsby’s
smooth as snow on the piste
silver silk
spinning down her back
weaving me jealous.

Years later
Westgate House Department Store
hair pieces, extensions
toupés and full wigs, then
the complete blonde Kilsby,
the hair she crushed me behind the door for
when hair was given out.

I felt it, smelt it, drooled over it,
tried it on, of course,


Rachel Davies
March 2019